The expedition was everything promoted in the literature and more. The research is for real and Joan willingly shares his vast knowledge of dolphins. His enthusiasm for his studies is contagious and by the end of our first outing all participants were won over and eager to share in gathering and processing the data gathered. Dolphins really are magical beings and seem to exude delight and optimism. Joan runs his expeditions with a perfect balance between making every effort to see that the members enjoy themselves, experience genuine Greek culture, and become more aware of the challenges facing humankind if we wish to see the world’s oceans restored to robust health.
The outings are the centrepiece of the expedition and once at sea, Joan is all business, as any serious researcher should be. His expectations of the participants are necessarily high, but achievable, since he is seeking clear and accurate information. We all came away knowing we had made genuine contributions to Joan’s work. Vonitsa itself is a quiet and authentic small Greek town with many nice cafes and bars where you can enjoy a coffee after an outing or something more in the early evening.
This has been a great opportunity to meet new people and spend a week learning about dolphins, fishing, the ecology of oceans, and play a small role in research I would otherwise never have known existed. The dolphin sighting expeditions are far more engaging (and challenging) than any dolphin watching tour. Just going out to look at dolphins would get pretty boring after the second day, but actively scouting, keeping track of different groups, closely watching behaviour, and hearing Joan’s commentary makes each sighting a unique experience. Joan’s passion and knowledge make his lectures and spontaneous Q&A’s enjoyable and more educational than I had expected. Being in the middle of a region struggling with the effects of overfishing and spending time with people who are deeply about that and other ecological/environmental dangers the ocean is facing really does make these issues feel real, important, and solvable.
I also enjoyed the small group of volunteers. It’s a good way to meet people with a wide variety of backgrounds and a common sense of adventure and interest in environmental and scientific issues. The organization of living quarters, research duties, and meals are well designed to promote a lot of interaction and let people get to know each other. Having volunteers prepare their own dinners in turn is especially enjoyable.
And lastly the town of Vonitsa and nearby towns are terrific places to spend some quiet time. By coincidence we happened to be here for the festival celebrating the first of May and walked out to the island to watch the dancing and horse “riding”. Without hesitation they shared a large portion of one of their freshly prepared lambs, and we had an excellent lunch.
We walked down to the harbour past orange and lemon trees, past cats waiting hopefully next to a fishing boat. Vonitsa was sleepy, with a few people drinking coffees and smoking in the seafront bars. Only the swifts moved quickly, manoeuvring a few inches above the ground or sea to catch insects.
Out on the sea, everything changed. We made a sighting thanks to a group of gulls, circling and diving over a group of feeding dolphins. The water boiled, fins surfaced and flukes thrashed. Several dolphins were working together to circle and confuse the fish, then feed on them. The seagulls also took a share, and helped us work out where to look for the next leaping dolphin… two to our right, three straight ahead, one to the left and a few behind us… we were surrounded! We tried to watch all the action, but inevitably could only see a fraction of what was going on because it happened so quickly. Gradually the dolphins dispersed, leaving the sea calm again.
During the week, we were lucky enough to watch dolphins feeding several times, as well as seeing them resting, socialising and travelling together in a group, and we even had one bow ride our boat briefly. It was a great experience not only to observe them in their natural habitat, but also to learn about them and to take part in research which will help ensure they survive and thrive.