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?

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