Hello! My name is Bob Spillman (Dr Bob). Join me as I travel to Greece to study Dolphins on an Earthwatch Expedition!

Ask questions and offer ideas.

Friday, September 6, 2013

This will be my final entry in my blog.  I've hotlinked several educational sites concerning the dolphin and other marine life.  Please spend some time evaluating this information and do what you can to help maintain our oceans.

The best start to learning about the Mediterrean dolphins is from the Earthwatch site:

I was surprised to find a very recent article in the New Scientist that was written by another Earthwatch volunteer who also paretricipated in the Greece study at Vonitsa.  It can be found here:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Get Involved

This is my final post and I simply want to point the reader to the vast array of educational resources that document the perils that dolphins, and other sea life, face in our oceans.  The best place to learn about the dolphins is at the Earthwatch site that is dedicated to the dolphin project:


You can search their site for the many items it contains on dolphins, as well as other perils the earth faces.  I've picked a couple of their sites that were of particular interest to me.  The first is a post reporting the sighting of a dolphin well known to the staff.  From that blog one can link to summaries of the other volunteer teams that spent time in the Mediterranean.


The link to the blog summary of the trip I was on is:

Scroll down to the trip dated May 3 - June 6.  You can read all of the volunteer comments on the trip.

The overview of the Earthwatch trip is at:
This is the place to go if you have an interest in participating in a future expedition.

A broad overview of the dolphin project, with links to specific videos is found at:
It discusses the techniques and presents some of the data that is taken.  There are also some good photos and educational videos.  The links to the videos are at the bottom of the page.  One of these videos highlights the Earthwatch team in action:  http://www.cetaceanalliance.org/dolphinpeople/index.htm

One of the links takes one to a useful documentary of the "Disappearing Dolphins, along with additional informative links:  http://www.whaletrackers.com/whales-mediterranean-sea/disappearing-dolphins/
One of these informative links discusses the "illegal fishnet industry," : http://www.whaletrackers.com/whales-mediterranean-sea/fishy-business/
I certainly have a different view of "industrial fishing" after learning what these fishnets do to our oceans.  This is a good place to start in any effort to save the dolphin, and one in which Earthwatch is active.

I happened to come across a recent article in the New Scientist that also covers the dolphin's challenges:  http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727683.100-dolphin-tracking-in-a-giant-greek-bathtub.html

The New Scientist also had a recent article on the blue fin tuna and the failure of nations to agree on measures to protect this rapidly declining fish.  It is a good example of how difficult it is to secure productive political involvement on matters of conservation.  When economic or national interests are at risk, it is the wildlife that loses:  http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2010/03/bye-bye-bluefin.html

Please take a more active role in helping the dolphins.  Donations, writing to politicians, and volunteering can make a difference.  It has to.  And thanks again to the donor who made this trip possible for me.  It was very much appreciated and has reinvigorated my goal of helping the planet.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Field Site and Expedition Study

I want to share a few photos and thoughts about the trip experience.  It was a wonderfully organized trip and I believe all of the volunteers would share my appreciation of what Joan and Iva did to make the trip pleasant, productive and educational.  While the dolphin study was always the top priority, they always had our interests in mind when it came to food, sights and comfort.  If a fishing village was located along our dolphin route, we usually managed to be located in that vicinity during mid-day, so that we could enjoy a Greek lunch at a harborside outdoor cafe.  These meals were a very nice break and gave us a chance to converse, try the Greek breads and cheeses, and to observe the types of fishing boats at that location.  I wish I had some photos to share of these small villages that were typically located at the base of a mountain on the waterfront.  Wonderful!

The field site that served as our lodging is located in Vonitsa.  It is a second floor apartment that has been outfitted to provide sleeping and meal facilities that accommodate Joan and Iva as well as the 5 volunteers on this particular trip.  We took turns preparing meals and the staff was always excellent in obtaining the supplies.  Our meal area:

There is actually a third member of the staff that I've not mentioned yet.  He watches the apartment while we are traveling and also assists in meal cleanup.  His name is Poseidon and goes by the nickname Posi:

Posi is a great companion on the porch and he really enjoys his walks.  I really enjoyed early morning coffee on the porch while we watched the new day come.  Cool breezes, sounds of a town waking up, coffee, and a happy dog make an excellent environment for reflection.  It was a great energy builder for the day.

My travel to Vonitsa involved a flight from Boston to Athens, followed by a 5 hour bus trip to Vonitsa.  The schedules make a same-day connection nearly impossible, so I spent one night in Athens both coming and going.  A recommended Hotel was the Art Gallery Hotel, a very nice small hotel with some room options for saving money.  Two benefits I had not realized until I got there were 1) only 1 1/2 blocks from a subway terminal, and 2) located at the base of the Acropolis of Athens.  I checked in and immediately headed up the mountain to the Acropolis.  It was surreal to be in the middle of what most of us epitomize as the heart of ancient Greece.

The Parthenon was being renovated, but one is still transported back into ancient Greece and cast into awe that such structures could have possibly been built 500 - 600 years BC.  One portion of the site is constructed from 8,000 two-ton blocks of stone.  The columns and artwork from that period are amazing.

The Acropolis museum was a very good investment.  It documents the history of the  Acropolis and focuses particularly on the artwork.  The museum has tried to reassemble the actual artwork by purchasing the known pieces.  It has made plaster replicas of those pieces it cannot get. 

The Temple of Zeus is nearby the Acropolis.  Although there is little left, it still radiates the importance this god has in Greek mythology.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Trip Completion

I have to say that this was a remarkable adventure.  I wish to thank the anonymous donor who made it possible and the organization and staff of Earthwatch who are doing hard, dedicated work to help save our environment. 

I need to apologize to you, the reader, for the way in which this blog is organized.  My intent was to add my day's experience to the blog while I was in Greece.  I had NOT prepared myself for the possiblities that 1) the Greek language uses the original Greek symbols of tau, epsilon, omega, delta, etc., 2) that the computer keyboards would use Greek letters, and 3) that internet sites all have a Greek translation which come up automatically at the local internet cafe.    Imagine reading CNN in the Greek language.  I was able to access my own email account in English and what was posted on this blog was added by my wife as she tried to interpret my communication with her.  I'm back now, so this is my own summary.

Why this was a "Remarkable Trip"

Our team leaders, Joan and Iva were experienced, patient, and inspirational.  They worked hard to get complete, accurate data.  This is the type of documentation that is essential in forming solid management decisions and, more importantly, convincing citizens of the need for action.  It takes a lot of hard work and relentless dedication to be successful.  The Mediterranean dolphins are in good hands, but the goal of saving the dolphins, and other sealife, are all in jeopardy unless the rest of us help insure that action is taken.

It was my conclusion that I need to do much more to help and to stop hoping politicians will make good decisions on the environment with respect to sealife.  Our dependence on the ocean has grown to the point that it cannot sustain the rate and type of pressures we are putting on it.  But decisions to limit fishing and pollution are met with great resistance from the people and corporations that depend on the sea for their livelihood.  More on this later.

First, I'd like to share some of the brighter moments.  Upon my return, I was always asked the same initial question:  "Did you have fun?"  It was not "How are the dolphins doing?"  The trip was fullfilling, not fun, technically speaking.  It was a working trip and we spent most of our time on the water searching for dolphins.  Certainly, Greece is a beautiful country and I must admit I enjoyed the views, but most of our time was spent searching for and recording behaviours of the dolphins.  The boat was equiped with a recording GPS unit that would track our position over time. 

Information recorded at a sighting included position, number of dolphins, distance from boat, bird activity, feeding activity, dive times, social behaviors, and any other notable event.  Joan would control the boat with his feet while taking photos of the dolphins for later identification.  His was able to take sharp photos with a telescopic lens while standing in a roicking boat and shouting instructions to Iva and the volunteers.  He had a sixth sense of where the dolphins might surface and caught some spectacular photos as a result.  The following photos were taken by Joan and are copyrighted to Tethys Research Institute in Milano, Italy.  More on Tethys can be found under the "Great Links" on this blog.


This photo was taken when we found a group of dolphins who seemed particularly curious and playful. They didn't try to evade us and a couple were curtious enough to "bow ride" alongside the boat as it was moving. They would swim just below the surface of the water within what seemed like touching distance. The reponse from the volunteers was a resounding, and harmonious "oohhhhaaahhhhh." 

We were also fortunate to see a number of moms with their calves. 

Even I had to start loving baby pictures when I saw the eyes, playfulness, and bonding behavior.

We usually spotted dolphins in groups, such as this one:

We would sometimes spot single dolphins joining a group, which was recorded as part of the sighting.  The photographs were used to identify individual dolphins by the often characteristic markings on their dorsal fins.  I enlarged the photo of the calf and mom from above and if you look at the area defined by the arrow you can see the types of markings we used:  Joan and Iva have compiled a large database of photos that we used to find the ID of the dolphin.  Other possible markings include sections of the fin that were missing due to attacks or accidents, and the overall shape and proportion of the fin.  In some cases the IDs were easy, but most required very close examination since the direction of the photos is always a little different. 

Our base was a second floor apartment in the small seaside town of Vonitsa that housed the office, kitchen, and sleeping bunks and was just a short walk to the water.  An old castle overlooked the town and the boardwalk was lined with inviting outdoor restuarants.  We had good opportunities to explore the area between activities.  The Greek food was great and the ambience invigorating.  I was struck by the tendancy for people to engage in very active discussions over their meals outside on a patio.  This is a wonderful way to promote communication, even among strangers.

I will add more to this blog as to why we need to concern ourselves with the health of our oceans and aniumals such as the dolphins.  I am committed to adding my support to achieving the goals set forth by Tethys and Earthwatch.  This experience will become a lesson plan for my fall science classes and I expect to have a list of actions that all of us can take to help.

Remember, these are not my photos.  They were taken by Joan and belong to Tethys.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Dr. Bob with Dolphins -- June 4, 2010

Until today, we've had good luck spotting dolphins. We went to a completely different area and spent many hours scouring the sea, but to no avail. It was an area in which overfishing has been a problem. The local town is home to several trawlers and they have been very efficient fishing boats, to the extent that the level of the dolphin's prey has fallen to the point that they no longer frequent the area.

The fish trawlers have put a lot of pressure on the local fishermen. They can't compete with such efficiency and the loss of fish makes the problem untennable. This is happening worldwide. Fish trawelers destroy the seabed and natural biosystem in the name of increasing corporate profits at the expense of the sea. Fish are now being labeled in many stores as whether they are harvested in an ecologically stable method. Even WalMart has announced that it will now sell only ecologically marked fish. Big conglomerates such as Mitsubishi ignore the evidence and continue to try and monoploize the fishing industry. Cod, of course is one good example of what can go wrong. Environmental groups have been stymmied in compiling data on fish catches around the world. For example, despite an expected drop in Bluefin Tuna catches, one group was seeing fishing catches increasing on a world-wide basis. It made little sense in light of what they saw. It was eventually discovered that China was falsifying its numbers so that it would not have to make changes to its fishing strategy. The corrected numbers showed a dramatic decline in catch.
Regulations set forth by the United Nations were made ineffective when the ministers would agree to ignore them.


Tomorrow (Saturday) is our last day on the water. I leave Sunday for Athens (bus) and then catch a flight on Monday that gets me back to Boston Monday night.

Dr. Bob with Dolphins -- June 3, 2010

Thursday - we traveled by boat not far from our Vonitsa port and were lucky to have spotted a group of 5 dolphins (all bottlenose), including a baby. They were quite playful and kept surfacing near the boat and then swimming away in a long dive in a different direction. We tracked them fairly well, but not without a lot of shouting and sharp turns. At one point they displayed aerial behavior directly in front of the boat, creating a chorus of wow's. Joan got several fantastic photos of them in mid-air - a very difficult feat since they are invisible until they appear and Joan was busy driving the boat. We followed the group most of the morning and noted their behavoir as other dolphins approached. At one point we left them to move towards a feeding group of dolphins who could be seen frothing on the surface amid a flurry of seagulls. The seagulls track feeding dolphins and will steal the fish that come to the surface.

We spent a portion of last night watching training videos amd discussing the dolphins with Joan. His committment to the dolphins is remarkable and touching. The dolphins are mammals and they actually evolved from land mammals that returned to the ocean. They exhibit intelligent behavoirs such as bonding, social behavior, cooperative feeding and defense. We watched one video in which one dolphin from a group would rapidly swim circles around a group of salmon such that they were frightened into swimming up into the air and eventually the other dolphins would swoop in and catch the confused fish.

The mission of the research group is to save the bottlenose dolphins from extinction. Data such as the type we are collecting is used for reports that document the dolphin's decline and identify the reasons. The two biggest pressures are overfishing and pollution. This portion of the Mediterranean is a beautiful, but remote area, that is seeing increased human use with little in the way of waste management and fishing restrictions. Joan seems to have had good success in working with the local fishermen, but much remains to be done on a very small budget. The purpose of finding volunteers like myself is threefold. First, we do help gather the data, second, it is expected that we communicate our experiences and conclusions to others around the world, and third that this communication and education will promote more donations to their cause. They are already doing a tremendous amount on a very small budget, but need more to accelerate the good progress being made.

As per our previous outings, we continued tracking dolphins until it was time to return for lunch and data processing. There is a very pleasant harborside cafe near the boat mooring, so we stop there for a coffee on our walk back to the station where we have a lunch of breads, olives, feta cheese and perhaps some tomatoes and cucumbers. A short sietsa will be followed by photo cropping and dolphin identifications. The older dolphins all have names and we've identified a number of them from the previous day's data already. This will be followed by another education session. Joan will then move the boat to a new port, and we will head out from this new port tomorrow. Dolphins are less frequently sighted there now.

Dr. Bob with Dolphins -- June 2, 2010

Yesterday (Sunday) we saw a lot of dolphins, but it was windy and overcast. It started raining around noon so we headed in. I got pretty wet, but dried off quickly once we got back. The group leader took a lot of photos for identification work. There are only around 150 bottlenose dolphins left in this part of the Mediterranean, and the principal investigator (Joan) knows many of them by name. We possibly saw more than 40 of them yesterday. Very lucky. Joan reports that some days he sees no dolphins. He can spot small differences in the fins, and this is what the volunteers use to identify the dolphins when the photos are uploaded to the computer and we match the markings. It is a tedious process since most photos are either blurred, distant, dark, or at odd angles to the reference photos. The volunteers work in groups of two to crop, assemble groups, and identify the dolphins. We did that yesterday afternoon, instead of continue in the rain.

There are 5 volunteers and two staff. The staff include Joan as the team leader and Eva, a graduate student from Vancouver, BC, who is serving as an assistant. They are both very capable and Joan is also very dedicated to the preservation of the dolphin's habitat. This area has been hit hard by human activities that result in water pollution and overfishing of the dolphin's prey. Joan has been woorking closely with the local fishermen on educating them on the problems. He is beginning to get general agreement on what the problems are and how to resolve them. But a lot more work is required, and he needs this data to tell the story.

The volunteers, besides myself, include three American women (Chris, Janis, and Melinda - all from the US, and Paul, from Britain. Everyone takes turns cooking and/or cleaning. I am scheduled to cook for Thursday night and just finished today's cleaning duty, The food here is wonderful, especially the cheeses, yogurts, olives, breads and coffee. I've tried some new dishes and enjoyed them immensly.

Our boat is perhaps 15 feet long and 6 feet wide, with rubber pontoons and a motor. It gets cozy when you place 7 people on board and the sea is rough. We are all given assignments, depending on the situation. For much of the time we are seeking dolphin activity, using watch settings for direction. For example, when I spotted four dolphins off to the left rear of the boat, I shout "Four dolphins, 4 o'clock, 200 meters."

Several times now, one sighting leads us closer to other dolphins that are also in the neighborhood. The shouting gets furious, and there can be a lot to see. We try to measure factors such as number in the focal group, dolphins in the surrounding water, number and type of birds present, dive time for a selected dolphin, nature of dolphin activity, and fish scales, if there are any. All this data is recorded into both a digital voice recorder and into a portable computer manned by one of the volunteers. It gets very hectic trying to keep everything straight. The boat has a GPS system that records our exact position so that all the dolphin data are eventually entered into a database that includes location.

It is very exciting to watch some of the dolphins come close and either display some social behaviors such as coordinated surfacing and diving, or "bow riding" in which they swim alongside the boat in a show of having fun with a non-threatening object. Joan knows many of the older dolphins as good friends. It is heartwarming to hear him talk about his family of dolphins. He is doing a tremendous amount to insure the remaining dolphins have a chance for survival.

We will now crop, characterize, and identify the photos we took this morning. It is a much nicer day than yesterday, but still unseasonably chilly.

The town of Vonitsa is small, but the waterfront is filled with outdoor restaurants and coffee shops. An old castle sits on a hill just to the right of the city, also facing the water. The surrounding mountains keep the town isolated. The people here are all friendly and seem to always be in conversation with one another. Perhaps this is due to the very relaxing experience of sitting in comfortable chairs along the waterfront while drinking excellent coffee and eating tastely Greek food. The volunteers are enjoying it and I've heard no complaints by the staff. Siesta is a requirement for the lead researcher, so the volunteers take this opportunity to explore the town (or try to write in their blogs).