30 August 2011

An unexpected encounter

The text below was written a few days ago by my friend and colleague Elena Politi. Back in 1993, with very little more than her enthusiasm and eagerness to study the dolphins inhabiting the beautiful waters of the eastern Ionian Sea, Elena established our first field base in the island of Kalamos and founded the Ionian Dolphin Project. I invite you all to get a glimpse of Elena's emotions when encountering, ten years after her last sighting, a group of common dolphins. 

She is the person who gave me the opportunity to come to Greece for the first time in 1999, when I was an unexperienced recently graduated student, to get a taste of the Dolphins of Greece experience; more than a decade later I still feel inspired by her passion for the marine environment, her never-ending energy and continuous advice and support. Thank you Elena!



An unexpected encounter (by Elena Politi)

The holidays are almost over.  Two weeks with my family around the waters of Kalamos, Ithaca, Kefalonia and Zakynthos onboard our inflatable boat. This morning we leave from Atoko, an imposing conical island that stands majestically between Ithaca and Kastos.
I have not encountered dolphins yet, except for a striped dolphin we encountered by chance on the way back from Zakynthos, which joined momentarily the bow of our boat.
Today the sea is flat. A surreal calm, muffled by the morning mist, characterizes most of summer days’ early hours in this area.

Today I am in search of dolphins. I cannot go home without my annual dose, given that we now see them only on holidays. Last year we saw a group of bottlenose dolphins, old acquaintances of the project, spectacular to say the least, for their jumps and the curiosity shown towards our boat. An attitude very different from what I remembered from my observations done in the good old days. Back then, they were usually reluctant to get closer, always busy while looking for food in the water column, being visible only when surfacing for physiological reasons.

Today I am eager to have an encounter like that one, and I narrow my eyes while standing at the bow, in order to spot even the smallest signs that may indicate the presence of some animal. The sea does not seem as sadly deserted as in recent years. There are schools of fish jumping around and I see a swordfish preying on a school of anchovies, immediately slipping away under the boat. The other day I also saw four tunas chasing their prey while being surrounded by the inevitable shearwaters. I think it's the right day to see dolphins. 

And then, all of a sudden, here they are in the distance: two small black fins, followed by the rounded shape of their back. They seem to be too small to be bottlenose dolphins.... but it is not possible. I cannot believe it. Pragmatically, I must admit, almost superstitiously indeed (shame on a scientist!), I approach them without preconceptions. Mine is a scream of excitement, pure joy: they are common dolphins! And they are numerous, thirteen in all. Three calves, one of which is a newborn, and a couple of juveniles, accompany them. It is a beautiful group of females with their pups who, indolently, swim zigzagging between Meganisi and Kalamos.

How long since I last saw them? I realize with horror that it is exactly ten years. The last time I was eight months pregnant, and we were collecting fragments of tissue from the skin of identified animals for genetic analysis. That was the last time I saw them. Then I left the field work for family reasons and, as the years went by, I read with sadness the data collected by my colleagues, which showed, with scientific coldness and clarity, the slow and inexorable decline of this local population, once so prosperous but now represented only by a few scattered specimens.

Over the years, navigating with my children in these impoverished waters by an insane fishing practice often conducted with illegal methods, without being able to see the unmistakable silhouette of a common dolphin, my thoughts were going back in 1991 when we saw them for the first time from the wheelhouse of the De Gomera (the sailing boat we used back then). An immense group of forty individuals who swam fast porpoising between Lefkas and Meganisi, a narrow channel literally infested with sailboats and motorboats, which felt more like a glimpse of the low Italian Lario (Lake of Como) rather than the typical Hellenic views.There were so many that I had initially thought they were striped dolphins (but what were they doing so close to shore?), and my amazement reached its climax when I realized that they were indeed common dolphins, a species that at that time was already considered a rarity in Italian waters.

For years the situation remained stable. We changed from a sailing to a rubber boat with a more practical research field base located at the exact centre of our study area, at Episkopi on the island of Kalamos. The groups of common dolphins continued to be numerous, at least until 96-97. Their presence was constant, regular and predictable. We could see them from home, from the port, even when we went on foot to fill the tanks of gasoline (yes, in those days we had very little money, a ridiculous boat to say the least and our research was dotted with several breaks of "forced labour"). The common dolphins were our confidence, our pride as researchers. We realized we were dealing with, probably, the only remaining large community of this species in the central Mediterranean. We felt charged with the responsibility to study them deeply, to understand, through them, which were the causes of the species decline in other parts of the Mediterranean, so that in future other similar losses could not occur again.

After 1997, although we would spot them regularly (almost daily), the groups began to be less numerous. Initially, I imagine, none of us had really realized the extent of the process that was taking place. We guessed they probably had a little less fish, but they were always there, as well as other predators that ate their same prey, tuna and swordfish. In a sense, we, who spent eight consecutive hours under the Greek sun to record their movements, behaviour and identity, were almost happy to photoidentify "only" six-ten dolphins at a time rather than a mass of 20-30 animals apparently uncontrollable committed to play hide and seek!

But something was coming up in front of our eyes. The years passed and it started to happen more frequently to scroll through the days without a single sighting of common dolphins. Meanwhile, as I said, I had left the field work and followed from the computer, through endless columns of numbers, the little (big?) drama that was unfolding in that polygon delimited by the Ionian islands. Nowadays, in this area too common dolphins had become a rarity, as happened in Italy fifty years ago. Of the 150 animals living in the area regularly, we could record only a dozen in recent years, which were identified during just two or three sightings in summer months. The sea slowly became a desolate desert. Sightings of tuna, swordfish, schools of anchovies, bonito and yellowtail became also a memory of the past.

For more than a year my colleagues have monitored the main fishing ports in the area. With painstaking patience they have monthly checked the captures landed by the fishing fleet, and quantified it in tonnes per year. The results of their work are incredible. Because of only 21 industrial fishing boats (representing 7% of the entire fleet and counting for 55% of the total biomass removed annually), the whole area has been literally depleted for years of anchovies and sardines, the main prey of common dolphins, tuna and swordfish. In practice, year after year, these boats have taken all (or almost all) what the area could effectively produce in terms of fish, leaving only a few "crumbs" to the other inhabitants of the sea.

The consequence of it is obvious. The common dolphins have just stopped being there, and they have dispersed over a much larger area to look for food resources elsewhere. Leaving aside the eco-biological implications (what happens to these distinctly social animals, for which the group cohesion is as necessary as the food they eat, when they are forced to disperse, disaggregate, thus reducing the quality and quantity of their social interactions as well as, ultimately, their ability to mate?), the result was depressing. To navigate these waters feels now like passing through that countryside parched by the passage of the urban and industrial civilization. Biodiversity has been drastically reduced to a few persistent marine species that feed and grow fat because of nutrients discharged daily by the ever-growing fish farms.

Back to the present hot day, it is therefore understandable my enthusiasm, almost childlike, in having seen such a large a group of common dolphins. This summer, Joan (Gonzalvo, actual responsible of the Ionian Dolphin Project) had spotted them only once, in June, and they were three animals. Today they are more numerous and there are calves.  They’re not sociable (it's true, there are mothers taking care of and concerned about their offspring, who constantly keep me away), they don’t seem to be feeding, but resting. They do not come bow-riding or scouting. Even the juveniles, generally the most fearless and playful, keep their distance from our boat. When a motorboat passes by, their wave-riding across the resulting wake seems vaguely tired and lazy.

But all in all they are here. And there is fish around. And there are other predators. And I really hope that one day these wonderful creatures - most of them friends given that everyone has a name, Pepe, Daphne, Nigel, Max, and a date for each meeting – may be able to return to repopulate the seas of Ionian Greece, to amaze us with their fascinating behaviour. Well, this hope today is a bit more alive than before. There is still a long way to go, to implement effective conservation measures, which for years Tethys and other colleagues have been stubbornly promoting. A little effort is necessary to give the possibility to these dolphins to recover to their original level. But talking about it with young Greeks, who seemed genuinely concerned about the marine environment, I got the feeling that the future can give us hope, a really tough one to die.

p.s. The day after the encounter with the common dolphins, a few miles further south we encountered a group of nine striped dolphins that Joan had seen ten days before in the same area. Two days after, Joan told me that he found again the commons. This time they were 15: the same individuals I had met plus some more. Could all this really be a sign of recovery of the coastal marine ecosystem of Ionian Greece?

18 August 2011

Public awareness initiative in Vonitsa

On the evening of the 16th of August, framed by the beautiful medieval castle of Vonitsa in the town's seafront, Tethys Research Institute held a public presentation on the research activities conducted in the Gulf of Amvrakikos during the last decade aimed at the conservation of its highly resident population of bottlenose dolphins and on preserving the biodiversity of this unique semi-closed ecosystem. The event was attended by a large part of the local community as well as numerous visitors from overseas. The Municipality of Vonitsa provided all the logistic support necessary for the event. The presentation was delivered by Ioannis Giovos, our Greek research assistant from the University of Thessaloniki. After the presentation he responded to the question posed by the audience.

Representatives of some schools of the region attending the event manifested their interest on Tethys personnel organizing similar presentations to their students during Spring 2012, before the beginning of the research season. Since the beginning of this project we have tried to increase awareness among the local communities about the status and value of dolphins in the area. We are trying to raise interest in dolphin conservation and marine ecosystems. The positive reaction received encourages us to continue and shows that we are on the right track.


17 August 2011

Dolphins of Greece, volunteers 8-15 August

Dear Joan and Ioannis, working with you and the Earthwatch team of volunteers was a wonderful experience.  Everyone was kind and helpful and worked well together.  The dolphins were wonderful!  Thanks for sharing your expertise and being great team leaders.

Lynne (USA)


How can one not be impressed by Greece? The sun, landscape, company and sea. I can see why your lives have been dedicated to this place and this cause. There has been no room for complaints or disappointment. I am overwhelmed with information and thankful for the experience. Go forth warriors of the sea and spread the word ! I am sure I will be back to scan the horizon once more and look for the undulating rolls of dolphins. Next time though, can we do without the dead sea turtle? Thank you both for the memories.

Kimberley (Canada)


Thank you so much for the wonderful experience this week has been for me.   As a complete novice to the dolphin world, I am really impressed by how patient you have been in helping me to understand both the work you are doing here and the lives of dolphins.  I look forward to spreading the word about your project when I get home. Keep up the good work.

Barbara (UK )


I just have to say that I had the time of my life here in Vonitsa and I cannot thank both of you (Joan and Ioannis) enough for the experience. Even though you did not allow me to take back the sea turtle (just joking), the fieldwork, lectures, food, comfort of accommodation… Everything was way above my expectations. Food wise, the Greek salad with that thick olive oil was always great to have, the Italian wine with the proper Italian pasta was amazing, and the musaka and lamb was of course, fantastico!

The conversations and discussions we had at the dining table and balcony made me think so much about all the issues we are facing… On top of reading as many reports as possible and broadening my knowledge, I will make sure to spread the words to friends, relatives, strangers, so that the most ignorant country of marine issues would have the possibility in changing.
Thank you so much once again for everything!!!!

Sho (Japan)

Dolphins of Greece, volunteers 14-21 July

This trip has exceeded my expectations in every way! Joan and Ioannis are a terrific team to work with. Joan is serious and deeply passionate about his research and I cannot help but feel the same enthusiasm. He is a great teacher, all the while quick to smile and keeping a sense of humor about him. I have valued our frequent conversations about life in general – politics, economics, culture, movies, people – as much as I have enjoyed our conversations about cetacean behavior.  Ioannis is the perfect counter-part, an intelligent, even-keeled young man with impeccable integrity.  I will return from this trip far “richer” than when I started thanks to the two of them.  This trip has also succeeded in changing my behavior now that I have learned so much about the global threats to fisheries worldwide, and dolphins in particular. Kudos to you both!  I hope to see you again.

Doug (USA)


This trip has definitely been a life changing experience. Coming here I had no idea what to expect, besides that I would see dolphins and also do some work. I fell in love with this program. Seeing the dolphins, of course, was amazing, but I loved the lectures that Joan gave us. I loved learning about the dolphins, other sea mammals, and also the problems that the Amvrakikos Gulf faces. I had no idea that there was so many problems with it. This whole program has made me more aware of the problems that the ocean faces. Besides everything that I have learned about the dolphins and the gulf, I have also thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the people that I have been working with. Joan and Ioannis make a great team and are great to work with. They are both very passionate about what they do and that definitely inspires me. I loved hearing about the different cultures of each of us and also experiencing one. I hope that I can come to Vonitsa, Greece again and partake in this amazing endeavour, but if not, it was an experience that I will never forget.

Lauren (USA)


“Dolphins of Greece” was an amazing and incredible experience but also very intense. Intense not only because of all the very interesting knowledge that Joan and Gionnis instilled us but because of the emotions felt when seeing and working with dolphins. I was at first speechless when seeing the dolphins and throughout the week when Joan was telling us about his experience with them and all the issues that they face in the Gulf and around the world in general, I realised it was time for people to react and spread the word all around…At least I will for sure spread the word all around me and hopefully it will bring more volunteers to that unbelievable project. This experience was also a great opportunity to meet people of different countries, cultures and share our opinions on different aspects of life,and Joan, Ioannis and the other volunteers are the perfect example for it. And I can say that I have never laughed so much in my life! I hope this project will go on as long as possible because the dolphins need us!

Margaux (France)


Breathtaking, exhilarating, endearing, extremely educational, heartfelt and probably the best thing Greece has to offer!  Vonitsa is so beautiful and quaint.  The team was awesome and fun.  The friendships that were developed here will always have a special bonding that occurred due to this enchanting environment and sharing in witnessing the magnificence of the dolphins.  These beautiful animals of the sea can only make your heart and soul soar with delight.  Joan and Ioannis are such compassionate men who truly are dedicated to the welfare of the ocean and all its inhabitants.  Their dedication is to be admired and applauded.  It is an experience and education that I will never forget and hope to continue to pass on this knowledge through my blog and anyone and everyone who will listen to me!

Jan (USA)

13 August 2011

A "striping" incident in Kalamos

It was the beginning of the week for our new team of Earthwatch volunteers. One hour after leaving Mytikas, we came across a dolphin group on the eastern side Kalamos Island. Initially, we were surprised by the size of the group. They were about 20 individuals swimming quietly in a tight formation; something pretty rare for any of the two dolphin species historically present in the area (short-beaked common dolphins and common bottlenose dolphins). The surprise came when we recognised the beautifully patterned striped dolphins. This was the second sighting for the species in the core of the study area in over 20 years of regular research.

Striped dolphins are known as curious creatures that frequently interact with boats. The sighting lasted two hours and for most of the time we had no less that 5 individuals bow-riding and “checking us out”. The calm crystal-clear waters provided opportunity to observe them occasionally socializing right below us. It was quite a performance fully completed by regular aerial behaviour and breaching on both sides of our inflatable. Three days after this event, we still cannot erase a silly smile from our faces while writing these lines.

An unusual encounter like this highlights the importance of continuing to monitor this former paradise, which used to give us many moments like this but that unfortunately, nowadays are more and more rare. Definitely… striping!

Ioannis & Joan