The moment I stepped onboard the sailboat 'Pelagos' in San Remo, I entered another world. For six unforgettable days, 'Pelagos' was my home, the Ligurian Sea was the street on which I lived and the five crew members and ten volunteers were my extended family.
It has been more than a week since I returned to shore yet the magic of my week with the team and fellow volunteers seeking whales and dolphins and trying to uncover some of their secrets of the deep remains with me.
I cannot speak more highly of the team from the Tethys Research Institute who were onboard - Caterina, Francesca, Enrico and Eva. Not only are they serious and professional research scientists, they are enthusiastic and patient teachers. Along with Captain Roberto, the team was very warm and welcoming and nothing was too much trouble for their volunteers.
As a volunteer working with the Tethys team, I have been so close to fin whales I can hear them breathe. I have held eye contact with a striped dolphin as she rides the bow wave beneath me.
From the deck of our boat, I have watched the sun drop behind towering mountains and the moon rise over a satin-smooth sea.
For one week, I worked with people who are passionate about their work in trying to protect the beautiful marine animals which inhabit the Cetacean Research Sanctuary.
With volunteers from around the world, we have laughed heartily together and also watched in silent awe as whales surface near our boat.
In my life I have experienced many wonderful times and my week onboard 'Pelagos' ranks as one of my highlights so far. Already I am looking forward to the next time I step onboard 'Pelagos' and can call the 21-metre sailboat 'home'.
Through the work of Tethys and similar organisations, I sincerely hope generations to come will also know the privilege of seeing these magnificent mammals in the wild.
Sue Smart, journalist