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

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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).

Dr. Bob with Dolphins -- June 1, 2010

We came off the water early today because of rain and rough seas. This is my second attempt at corresponding from a Greek computer.

There are only 150 dolphins left in this part of the Mediterranean. We've been lucky to see around 50 so far.

Everyone is drying off and then this afternoon we will identify individual dolphins through photos that were taken.

Dr. Bob with Dolphins -- May 31, 2010

This morning we spent 5 hours in the pontoon raft spotting dolphins. I was the first to spot something, but it was a sea otter in a fish pen. Fun! It took an hour, but then we came across a pod of dolphins. There were 7 or 8 in the group and we circled while they fed and had fun flying into the air. Several began to "bow ride," or swim with the boat either just off to the side or slightly ahead. We eventually spotted many dolphins, most in the distance, and tracked their various movements. The boat automatically tracks our location with time while everyone spots and identifies the direction, distance and number of dolphins. One person is given a portable device on which they record a condensed information stream as relayed by the two staff (Joan and Eva). It really got hectic several times as dolphins appeared around us and presented sights such as newborns, flight into the air, synchronized swimming, and bow riding.