From 2000 to 2015 OceanCare carried out a monitoring project in the Pelagos Sanctuary in the Corso-Liguro-Provencal sector of the Mediterranean Sea and documented the temporal and spatial distribution of cetaceans in this area during 6-8 weeks and several hundred kilometres of research trips every year. Alongside whales and dolphins we also saw numerous moon fish, Velella and also jumping swordfish.
As this area is very rich in nutrients, plankton samples were taken and analysed to better understand the vitality of the habitat.
In order to study the distribution of deep diving sperm whales, we also used a hydrophone, an established method in non-invasive cetacean research for detecting sperm whales. The animals can rarely be seen as they dive for about an hour and only surface for a short time to breathe. Acoustically, however, they are easy to locate.
The Mediterranean sperm whales differ genetically from their relatives in the oceans, with which they as inland sea creatures hardly have any exchange. Today, there are only a few hundred of these giants left between the Bosporus and Gibraltar and their situation is becoming increasingly critical. Collisions with ships take the lives of many sperm whales, noise disrupts their acoustic sense of orientation, plastic garbage clogs their stomachs, and they get entangled in fishing nets and drown miserably.
Over the years OceanCare has contributed to better understand whale and dolphin populations in the Pelagos Sanctuary and made the data freely available via a publicly accessible database.
Unfortunately we didn’t only hear sperm whales, but several times also recorded military sonar. We reported these recordings to the ACCOBAMS Scientific Committee and to the French Directorate for the Environment and Sustainable Development during a personal visit to Paris – with the result that the French authorities stopped granting us permission to use the hydrophone in 2015.
After 15 years of research, we thus completed the project south of France and, following a pilot in September 2015, continued data collection around Sicily from summer 2016. The waters off north-eastern and eastern Sicily and in the Strait of Messina provide perfect living conditions for whales and dolphins. Particularly deep diving species such as Risso’s dolphins, Cuvier’s beaked whales and sperm whales find an ideal underwater world here. However, there has been little systematic research on the distribution of the various cetacean species and their population development in this marine area. OceanCare documented their spatial and temporal distribution and identified human-animal conflicts that have to be resolved in order to better protect whales and dolphins.
Habitat quality was also part of the assessment, with a special focus on plastic pollution. In a range of research projects, the crew also collected plastic waste drifting on the surface. In addition, microplastic samples were taken and macroplastic waste floating on the water surface, such as bottles and fragments, was counted and recorded for the first time. These counts allow to compare, quantify and monitor the development of local plastic accumulations. Employing a special net, we were able to take microplastic samples, which were sent to a laboratory for analysis. Beach cleaning was also part of the research programme, as classifying and documenting the collected plastic waste on the beach provides important additional information.
By the end of September 2019, after 20 years, we will complete the field research. The data will serve as the basis of scientific publications, which will be developed with Dr. Silvia Frey as the lead author. The publications in turn will serve as a basis for OceanCare’s policy work in the relevant international fora and for effective conservation measures.
OceanCare would like to thank Silvia Frey for developing, advancing and carrying out our field research from 2000 to 2019. We also want to thank the skippers and guides who contributed to the success of the project, and the participants who helped to finance this project with their participation fee. We are pleased that Silvia Frey continues the expeditions under her newly founded association ‘Kyma sea conservation & research’ and that we can refer interested laypersons to her.
We are now eagerly awaiting the scientific publications and are already looking forward to using them in our policy work in international bodies.