08 December 2007

Dolphins of Greece expedition: My experience

Student Sarah Marley recalls her experiences on the Earthwatch expedition Dolphins of Greece. The expedition, which she joined in September, was her prize for winning the 2007 BBC Wildlife Young Environmental Journalist of the Year competition.

After travelling through Athens, Vonitsa came – quite literally – as a breath of fresh air. Nestled in a small bay on the southern coast of the Amvrakikos Gulf, surrounded by scenic mountain views, and radiating a “typically Greek” feeling so thick you could cut it with a knife, Vonitsa seemed like the ideal location for a Greek adventure.

Or so I thought until I sat down in my first proper Greek cafe to hear James Blunt emanating from the depths of the bar across the street. Consoling myself with an ice-cold coke and the thought that not everything in life is perfect, I waited for the rest of the Dolphins of Greece Earthwatch team to arrive. Surprisingly, Malvina and Elisa – the two research assistants for this project – recognised me straight away as a volunteer. “You’re too pale to be local” they laugh at me. Finding people of a similar sense of humour to you is always good when working on a project, and my fellow teammate Lesley didn’t let me down either. A bright and cheery Londoner, she was easy to get along with from the start. I could tell this was going to be a fabulous time.

Back at the research station, the Principal Investigator Joan (Gonzalvo Villegas) explained the purpose of the project. The Amvrakikos Gulf has one of the highest dolphin population densities in Greece. This is possibly due to the gulf being one of the most productive coastal areas in the country, with its nutrient-rich waters attracting many fish species. Unfortunately, this also attracts fishermen. This human presence not only impacts fish stocks, but the local environment through pollution, construction of marinas and housing, increased boat traffic, and other factors. The aim of the project is to monitor the dolphin population and understand how these animals interact with their environment. The effects of human activities can then be assessed to determine the impact on the local wildlife.

In other words, this isn’t just a holiday – our contribution as volunteers can influence the outcome of this important research. Here is your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Next morning we were up bright and early for a 7am breakfast. Dragging our bleary-eyed, semi-comatose forms through to the dining room, Joan explained what we were going to do that day. The team would be doing transects across the bay looking for dolphins, turtles, sea birds and any other interesting fauna. When we found some dolphins, we would record the group’s angle and distance from the boat. During the sighting, which could last up to an hour, we would regularly record dolphin group position, size, composition and behaviour. Sounds easy enough we thought, curled up on a sofa drinking tea. No worries.

We walked down to the boat at about 8am and headed out to sea. “Wow, what an adventure!” I thought, as we moved out of harbour, “The sun’s shining, I’m in Greece, and we’re off to look for dolphins – magic!” Two hours and no dolphin sightings later, the magic was starting to wear off while the cold set in. Although Greek afternoons are long and warm, out in the early morning, moving at speed across the sea, there’s not much heat to be found. Shorts and strappy tops are not to be recommended…

Just when I was about to give up hope, Joan perked up. Had he seen something? Dolphins? Where? Frantically scanning the horizon, I thought I could just about make out some distant splashes. How had he spotted that? We headed towards the sprays of water and met our first Greek dolphins.

For me, seeing dolphins is always an amazing experience. As a child I watched them from cliff tops in north-east Scotland, and just recently I experienced them a bit closer out in the Scottish Moray Firth while helping with some research there. It’s an experience that leaves me speechless. To be sitting on a small boat, drifting slowly across the water, and find yourself watching a group of dolphins…it’s perfect. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. And it’s not just a case of you watching them – they’re just as interested in you. Sitting at the bow of the boat, you watch as they swim underneath, lolling onto their side to look back up at you. Sometimes you can even hear their clicks and whistles. It’s like looking into a whole different world, which in effect you are. It’s a privilege.

Which is why we can’t just sit watching all day – we volunteers have work to do. Grabbing a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) we start logging data; calling to each other as a different individual suddenly appears; timing dives and following the dolphins’ progress across the gulf. All the while, Joan drives the boat, takes photos of the dolphins for later identification, and still manages to spot other dolphin groups in the distance. The man is nothing short of a marvel. Watching him in action is almost as inspiring as watching the dolphins themselves.

Then, all too soon, the group leaves us. I’m surprised to find that an hour has passed, the cold of before long forgotten. We head back to Vonitsa, retiring to the Green-Faced-Chef CafĂ© to discuss our first survey trip, to a background of James Blunt’s greatest hits. Then it’s back to the research station for lunch, a quick siesta, and back to work. That afternoon, we’re taught how to crop the photos from the morning’s survey, and learn how to match the photos to known individuals in the Dolphin Catalogue.

Afterwards, we attend a short ‘lecture’ from Joan, and watch videos explaining a bit more about the work in and around the Amvrakikos Gulf. Throughout the stay, we also learn about the threats faced by the dolphins – as well as other wildlife – with particular emphasis on the dangers of over-fishing. These are topics familiar to everyone; always cropping up in the news or on nature programmes. But once you’ve been to the areas affected, once you’ve seen for yourself what there is at stake, seen how much can be lost, then you sit up and take notice. And if by supporting Earthwatch and contributing to some of the research as volunteers we can make a difference to the plight of these areas and the wildlife affected, then I can’t wait to go on my next expedition.

Sarah Marley

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