“4 O’clock Out, Out… 5, no, 6, 7 sighted!” Five pairs of eyes swivel as one over to the right of the boat and peer expectantly over the clear blue water. I can feel the level of the excitement in and around me rise as the details of the sighting become clear. If I don’t see anything except water straightaway I feel so disappointed. Then a few seconds later, the glorious sight of a dorsal fin arcing out from the waters surface and then through the air releases all the tension and I could swear the beautiful dolphins were grinning at me before they glide back out of sight. The sun is behind me warming my back and nature is putting on an acrobatic display for me before my very eyes. I feel so spoilt.
If that wasn’t enough then, as soon as I return to the cottage hidden away in the islands hillside, a feeling of relaxation overwhelms me. Seven year-round residents, a few visiting boats, Stefano and Zsuzsanna form the Tethys team, the other volunteers Marta and Ruth... and me. It is not an island of sights and manicured prettiness, but there is the most amazing peace and quiet. This is not 5-star luxury... the treatment I receive from the Tethys team is far simpler and far better than that. I realise that hospitality should be measured with hearts and not stars. From Susie’s early morning call, to beautiful music and a breakfast of simple food, locally sourced. Coffee if it’s needed, and nothing is too much trouble to ask for. I have never felt at home so quickly anywhere. Including home.
I soon realised that the team look after you better than any waiter, butler or maid, because they treat you (and in turn you treat them) just like a family. There is a complete respect and a feeling of support. The team ethic here is strong too. It needs to be for Tethys to run such a tight, professional operation, but one that opens its doors to complete strangers every week. I am completely absorbed into the research team. I clean and cook with them. I sail, spot dolphins and record the results with them. I work on the results with them and I feel like I am doing good to the world with them. And then, at the end of each day, I eat and relax with them. This is not a holiday for loners, or a place to come to have your entertainment pre-packaged and served up to order. The satisfaction of a job well done and the smiles that I share from the natural fun of a close-knit group are more than enough for me.
It is amazing too to see the people I was laughing with, just the night before, transformed into a highly focussed crew on a boat. Orders are barked because they need to be. Discipline is high, but every rule is in place for a reason. I know when I’ve done something wrong and I soon realise that when they are at work, their business is taken very seriously.
Everything that they and I do is explained clearly and with care, and this brings my visit to Tethys to life even more. Now I understand why the ropes on a boat must be tied just so, why the settings on a camera are important to get the best images for recognition and why accuracy in all activity is paramount. And I also understand a little why the ecology of the sea is changing, and what just a few of the causes and impacts of this might be. And maybe, just maybe, how a few things that I do can change it. There is no preaching here, just simple logic, backed up by fact and research. It is much more powerful than any other message I have ever seen. Nothing is shocking, just well presented by people who love what they do and their passion for their work is infectious.
And then I’m back on the boat. Dolphins are nearby and my heart is racing because I know I must perform my task well to help record their activity. And I understand why the smallest details are important, and it all makes sense. When the work is done for the first sighting I know there will be time to relax and enjoy watching the creatures we’ve recorded play. To take photos, to marvel at their beauty and their personality. And because I now understand just a little more about why they do, what they do and what it means for the world, I feel closer to them than I could ever have imagined and I can smile back at them with all my heart.
The Ionian Dolphin Project is neither a dolphin-watching-program nor a pure holiday. It is much, much more than this – and it is something completely different. I joined as a volunteer primarily because I have been travelling to Greece for some years now and I wanted to see a different side of this country I so fell in love with. I was always aware of the fact that there was more to it than Ouzo and Sirtaki, but this week on the Kalamos island was more than I had thought it would be.
I experienced true international teamwork in the best possible way. I spent more time outside in a week than I usually get in a month. I enjoyed some brilliant home made (Italian!!!) food. I learned a lot about cetaceans in the Greek seas and about the problem of over-fishing. And yes, I did see dolphins in the wild. But the amazing thing is that the days we did not see dolphins were not even the least bit less interesting, fun or informative as the days we actually saw them.
A big fat THANK YOU to the incredible staff, Stefano, Zsuzsanna and Mauro for making it so easy to feel as part of the project. And thumbs up for Marta and Andy, probably the best roommates I ever had.