10 October 2007

The early days of the Adriatic Dolphin Project

Tethys President Giovanni Bearzi reports on his experience with the project

I first went to Losinj in 1987 with my father’s inflatable boat, staying in a camping. I was told that dolphins around Losinj and Cres were easy to find, and could be approached from small boats. That sounded very interesting to me, as I was looking for ways to do a dolphin study for my Biological Sciences thesis at the University of Padua.

By that time I had been surveying portions of the Mediterranean from oceanographic vessels, recording cetacean sightings. However, I was hoping to get a little closer to the animals, rather than just identifying the species and counting them while passing by. I soon realised that Losinj offered amazing opportunities. Bottlenose dolphins were easy to find, they could be photographed individually (which later allowed the identification of most community members) and they could be followed at close quarters during their daily movements, thus allowing to collect information on their behaviour.

The first time I came back home after two weeks in Losinj I knew for sure that my life had changed - I finally had found what I was looking for. I completed my thesis on northern Adriatic dolphins, and then Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara and myself decided that it was worth to continue, under the umbrella of the young Tethys Research Institute. Our aim was to start a long-term study to replicate in the Mediterranean what the likes of Randy Wells and Bernd Würsig had done in other parts of the world.

In 1990 Giuseppe and I crossed the border between Italy and former Yugoslavia with a busload of enthusiasm and hope. With us there was Laura Bonomi, one of the finest field workers I ever met. We managed to find a sponsor for the boat, an outboard engine, basic research equipment (a reflex camera, a tape recorder and the first GPS model available on the market), plus a little money for the renting of a house and for the gasoline. Nobody cared much about earning a salary, or turning the project into some sort of business (which it never became). All we wanted was finding the dolphins and getting to know them better.

And that’s what we did, eventually, facing all sort of difficulties, dealing with damaged boats, broken engines, political trouble, much frustration, cold winters, lack of money, countless hours writing proposals and entering data, personal difficulties and the whole set of problems that come with a field project. But also hundreds of unforgettable hours spent with the animals, known one by one as good friends. The joy of being at sea, alone or with some of the many extraordinary people who joined me in that adventure. Observing dolphins, and eventually understanding at least in part what was going on, what they were doing, what they were likely to do next, and who was there socialising with Taba and Pinna Vibrante.

Although research was our main activity, the Adriatic Dolphin Project developed into something more than just a dolphin study. It soon attracted interest from enthusiastic local supporters such as Arlen Abramic, and then Nena Nosalj and many others. Nena, in particular, was instrumental in enhancing the public awareness potential of the project and allowing us to share whatever we learned about the local dolphins with the general public and the media. The Dolphin Day was one of her many brilliant ideas. She and Arlen also “forced” me to make dozens of presentations in front of a public that ranged from tourists to fishermen, from refugee children to commando soldiers.

Today, I’m so glad I did all that, contributing to the development of what is now one of the most successful and long-lasting dolphin projects in the Mediterranean, and setting the stage for the next round of fine people, Drasko, Pete, Caterina and all the others, to whom we eventually passed the baton. After almost two decades, it is nice to see that the Adriatic Dolphin Project has managed to overcome many apparently insurmountable problems and that Blue World is now doing such an excellent work, with about the same spirit and motivation we had in the early days. I wish that all will continue to produce outstanding conservation results, shining as a testimony that commitment by enthusiastic individuals can make a difference in this world.

Giovanni Bearzi

Venice, Italy, November 2004

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