31 July 2008

A day in the life

(written upon request for the Earthwatch Institute web site)

From March 2006 I settled in Greece where I am in charge of year-round research in the Amvrakikos Gulf. Together with Giovanni Bearzi, I lead the ‘Dolphins of Greece’ project supported by the Earthwatch Institute.

Before moving here, I had been working intermittently with the Tethys Research Institute in Greece since 1999. From the very beginning, I fell in love with the island of Kalamos, its surroundings and the kindness of local people. In those crystal-clear waters I made my first dolphin sighting.

When Tethys offered me the opportunity of taking care of a new project in the Amvrakikos Gulf and settle in the beautiful village of Vonitsa, it just felt like the right thing to do. Obviously, it wasn’t easy to leave behind family, friends and my hometown (the gorgeous Barcelona), but I guess it was part of the challenge. After over two years of living in Greece the decision has proven to be good.

The semi-closed Amvrakikos Gulf has a high density of bottlenose dolphins and its calm waters make it an ideal place to the study these animals. However, the Gulf is becoming increasingly eutrophic and polluted as a result of human pressure. Management priority should be given to curtailing eutrophication and pollution and incrasing water exchange with the open Sea - that has been reduced by port construction and other infrastructure.

My life in Vonitsa changes a lot depending on whether we have volunteers participating in our field courses or not. As dolphin research must be conducted year-round with consistent methods, my main task while volunteers are at the field base is to ensure that field work and data collection are done properly. I must keep up with their expectations and do my best to convey a conservation message and involve them in everything we do. To accomplish this task, the help of one or two research assistants is crucial. My assistants devote much time to looking after the volunteers’ needs and they supervise their work at the field base, after 4-5 hours of intensive work at sea.

While the volunteers are here, one of the things I enjoy the most are our conversations over dinner. We normally talk about the day’s events. That dolphin bow-riding who stared at us while gracefully gliding below our boat. The feeding frenzy of a flock of seagulls taking advantage of dolphins schooling fish to the surface. A couple of male loggerhead sea turtles ‘wrestling’ a few meters away from us... Living with people with different backgrounds, sharing their thoughts, emotions and worries towards the future of our planet is mostly a pleasant experience.

When I am alone or with research assistants (usually marine biology students) we carry on with our survey effort and data collection, but I can afford to devote more time to other aspects of the project. This includes organising educational and public awareness activities at local schools or working with local fishermen to investigate interactions between dolphins and fisheries.

In the winter, one of the things I enjoy the most is walking early in the morning along the seaside, in the good company of my dog Posi, looking at the mountains on the opposite side of the Gulf with their hills covered by snow and the flocks of sea birds flying around the small wooden boats of local fishermen while they are hauling their nets. And, of course, I enjoy being at sea in the company of dolphins. It is then that being here makes perfect sense.

Joan Gonzalvo

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