13 August 2010

The calming sound of nature

On his celebratory feast day, 10th August, Saint Lawrence did indeed come through for the Tethys research team in the Gulf of Corinth, who were stunned to silence with perhaps the most jaw-dropping sighting of dolphins this year.

Having been teased with a micro-second sighting of a lone individual earlier in the morning, we prepared ourselves for a zero-dolphin day of searching and eventual return to base. It was around this time that Saint Lawrence decided to intervene - without prior notice or any clear indication of their presence, the research boat careered into a vast group of striped dolphins, including several mothers with newborn calves! Suddenly the thrill and excitement of the team was close to tangible. Surrounding the boat on all sides, at least eight mothers were escorting their uncoordinated young swimmers across the gulf, each newborn periodically leaping to the air in caudal-propelled excitement.

Although perhaps somewhat anthropomorphic, one felt a heart-warming sense of familiarity observing these infants gawkily mimicking their mothers' every move. From stationary surface resting, to subtle chin-raising and fin slaps, they adhered so closely to each gesture that I was reminded of my young nephews constantly at the side of my brother. Never have I been so overwhelmed with what must be a purely-female sense of maternal empathy, unscientifically categorising the level of 'cuteness' in between recordings of perhaps more academic behavioural and physiological data. Amongst a team of four women, the only man on board sighed with resignation as a chorus of "aww!"s filled the air each time the seemingly miniature calves nosed above the surface beside their mothers.

The sheer number of infants present within this large dolphin group was a conservation biologist's dream. The health and vivacity of this population is a gratifying sight to a team striving to understand and conserve such groups, although of course this is not the end of the story. The size and fragility of each young individual awakens one's senses to the dangers threatening current populations, and the importance of conservation research becomes abundantly clear.

We observed the group for over an hour, at times completely abandoning our data collection simply to absorb and appreciate the magic of being in close proximity to such a beautiful sight. With the engine turned low, the almost rhythmic, gentle beats of "pff...pff" as each individual surfaced for air was like therapeutic dolphin music echoing through me - the calming sounds of nature.

Philippa Dell
(Ionian Dolphin Project research assistant)

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