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 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).

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