30 June 2007

Dolphins of Greece, June 2007

Heat. Stifling heat is my strongest impression of this eye-opening week in Vonitsa with Joan (PI), Malvina, and Suzie, as well as my three fellow volunteers Caryn, Michael, and Jonathan. Heat defines our daily rhythms, robs us of good sleep, and offers us the authentic Greek experience. Early mornings are warm, sometimes slightly cool, before the thermometer starts its inevitable climb. We are on the water from 8 to noon, which is exhilarating and our tasks commands our complete attention (more on this below). When we return to the wharf, however, the sun has baked us and the breeze generated by the motion of the inflatable (if no other air movement exists) vanishes. We repair immediately to the Remezzo each day for beer, frappe, coke, iced tea, and cold water to rehydrate our bodies, compare notes, and share glimpses of pictures on our digital cameras.

Returning to our Earthwatch quarters, we prepare and eat a lunch of fresh salads and pastries, then knock off all activity until 4:30 p.m. Like the shopkeepers and public servants, we simple shut down for a few hours and endure the heat by doing as little as possible. By late afternoon, we pick up our pace and work under the direction of Joan, Malvina, and Suzie, cropping photographs taken in the morning, matching individuals with master files using their fins and scars (much like finger print matching or tree ring studies in dendrochronology). Fascinating. As the afternoon proceeds, we receive instruction from our three staff members, see videos about dolphins, other sea mammals, and the state of the world fisheries. These are invariably excellent, though some are inspiring while others deeply disturbing. They all inspire both reflection and conversation.

In pairs, we take turns cooking the dinner meal, swabbing the bathroom, and enjoying a little free time. By 9 p.m. the air has cooled enough to open the big windows and shutters over the dinner table and hope for a breeze. Sometimes we get it, sometimes we get mosquitos instead. Whichever is the case, the seven of us sit down for dinner together around 9:30. This is our land-based highlight of the day, as our conversations range from one or us to another—with each of us sharing something of our own knowledge, cultures, families. We all pitch in after the meal to clean up the table, wash the dishes, and do whatever else needs to be done for our common welfare. No slackers here, and much appreciation is expressed throughout the day for what others are doing. In less than a week, the seven of us have created a new micro-community in Greece from four distinct national backgrounds.

The heat remains. It has helped bond us, even as it oppresses us as each night darkens into blackness. Some nights we go over to the seaside for a beer to cool off before bed, other nights we simple collapse on our bunks, adjust the oscillating fan so that it hits each one of us occasionally, and doze into a pleasant unconsciousness that is punctuated intermittently by an awareness of sweat unevaporated by the fan´s persistent but meagre effort to cool us. By morning, on most days, I awakened about dawn (6 a.m.) freshened by the night air. Never have I understood the Mediterranean cultures as I do after a week in Vonitsa. I am grateful to have experienced it in the record-breaking late June heat that has defined our days here. We are living here authentically, without air conditioning. For that matter, we have also lived this week without municipal water for a day, for an hour or two one afternoon without electricity (no fans!), and without internet service in the town (which, for several days now the local café has told us “Perhaps tomorrow”).

Now for the dolphin research itself, the purpose that brought us together in Vonitsa. I have revelled in our days on the Amvrakikos Gulf in the inflatable boat with 100 HP Yamaha engine. We have seen dolphins in many moods, at very close range and sometimes in considerable numbers. We have photographed them for scientific purposes (even tried out Joan´s splendid camera and lens ourselves), counted them, helped collect skin swabs for DNA work, skimmed fish scales after their feeding frenzies, and learned the techniques for tracking them, counting them, and all the rest. I will leave with high respect for the practical skills as well as the scientific precision necessary to do this work in a way that commands respect among both scholars and public policy makers. Most important, however, I will leave with an abundance of new knowledge that will enable me to become an enlightened consumer of seafoods (which I love) and a determined advocate of sustainable fishing practices and the establishment of fish preserves worldwide. Thank you Joan, Malvina, and Suzanna, thank you Giovanni and Tethys, and thank you Earthwatch! This is my first Expedition with Earthwatch and it has lived up to my best hopes.

Final reflections: I have been a desert or mountain dweller in Utah and other parts of the American west for most of my adult life. So much is transferable from the issues we face there. Instead of dolphins, whales, tuna and swordfish, we fight for the survival of Grizzly Bears, Wolves, Mountain Lions, and California Condors. Like the multi-generational fishing families here, it is often the ranchers there who have a compelling culture, many rare and robust skills, and a distinctly hearty attitude about living. They, too, or educable (as are we conservationists, we hope) and we are finding increasingly common ground in protecting the natural world in its fullness. Mutual understanding based on hard-won trust and respect, and shared knowledge are the touchstones on which we must build a sustainable future for life on earth. We are closer to “Do or Die” than any of us probably know.



From our seaside loft in Vonitsa, you can see the Amvrakikos Gulf, where we spend our mornings on the inflatable in search of bottlenose dolphins to study. There is bright sunshine already when we walk down to the dock to load the boat. The town is waking up while the fishermen are just coming in, unloading their catch and readying their nets to set again in the evening. The Gulf looks calm most mornings and we hope it stays that way to make it easier to spot the dolphins, because that’s when the fun starts...

We’ll all be scanning the horizon and someone will yell, “dolphins in sight!” Our P.I., Joan, confirms the sighting, guns the engine and we’re off. Against a backdrop of mountains that rise out of the water, an old castle on the town hilltop, and groves of olive trees along the distant coastline, we are excited to be racing to see our first dolphins of the day. You could watch them all day, every day, if Joan had enough fuel, but there’s work to do. Whether it’s spotting dolphins to be photographed, recording dolphin behavior, timing dives or testing water quality, everyone has a role to play to make sure that the data is collected accurately for later analysis. Joan and his assistants, Malvina and Susie, help him collect fish scales for prey identification and dolphin skin swabs (not to worry – it’s non-invasive) for genetic analysis. Most times it’s very hard to remember the scientific work when a dolphin is swimming so close to the boat that you can see him looking right at you. Or when dolphins are leaping into the air and you just want to stand up and clap and say bravo!!! Or when you are lucky enough to see a newborn dolphin learning how to swim alongside its mother. The dolphins are absolutely spectacular. I know that at the end of this incredible week, I’ll leave Vonitsa with optimism for the future of these dolphins because of the efforts of the people who work so hard to protect them.

Thank you, Joan, Malvina, Susie -- for everything! Adios, Posi!



I must start by saying this trip was amazing. With this being my third EarthWatch expedition this trip altogether has exceeded my previous standards and expectations. We had a great group of volunteers as well as leaders. Joan, Malvina and Susie all did an excellent job of conducting the research while at the same time organizing all the volunteers to do their part as well. Jonathan, Jack and Caryn were an entertaining and pleasant group of people to be with. With everyone’s mixed backgrounds and cultures we got along very well and we all seemed to acclimate to the Greek culture’s relaxed lifestyle! And we can’t forget about the dolphins! It was unforgettable being out in the water studying the dolphins and their actions in person, then learning more about them with the videos and documentaries. My view of our world has changed in a positive way and I am more aware now of the dangers to life out there and what I can do to help. I would like to thank Joan for being a great PI and friend to us all. I know that all your hard work is respected and will be beneficial to changing our environment for the better. As for Malvina and Susie, good luck on your future schooling and thank you for an amazing experience. You guys were all great!



“To the dolphin alone, beyond all others, nature has granted what the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage. Though it has no need at all of any man, yet it is a genial friend of all and has helped many.”

“No creature is diviner than the dolphin;
For they once were men living in cities together with mortals.
But by the devising of Dionysos they changed land for sea
and took the form of fish,
And their righteous human souls preserve human thoughts and deeds.”

Great week A perfect balance of fieldwork in the morning, minilectures and videos in the afternoon, and socializing and hanging out in the village in the evening.

I love the village. Seems unchanged from traditional pretourist Greece. At 11 pm people of all ages are out walking along the waterfront, sitting at cafes, eating, drinking, smoking, socializing. Parents actually talking to their children. Kids swimming at the beach in the heat of the day. Every day and evening seems to be the same.

As a zoologist and amateur classicist, I found this a wonderful opportunity to try to see dolphins as the ancient Greeks did. The Greeks loved dolphins for their beauty, speed, sociability, kindness to their young, and friendliness to humans. Many stories of people saved from drowning by dolphins. A sea voyage in ancient times must have been a frightening experience. The sailors might rob you or sell you as a slave or the ship could sink and you would have no chance to survive... unless rescued by dolphins. The belief that dolphins rescued people may have arisen from the fear of drowning together with observations of apparently friendly behavior of dolphins toward humans---approaching and swimming alongside ships, bow-riding, turning their heads to look at people on board. And also the observation that they helped each other when one of them was wounded.

Thanks to Joan, Malvina, and Susy for making this a very successful week and to Jack, Michael, and Caryn for being such good companions.


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