Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, scientific director of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, has been studying Greek waters and their wildlife for more than 25 years. In 1998 he made a spectacular discovery: There was a population of about 200 sperm whales living just a few miles off the Greek coast! Ever since then, Alexandros Frantzis has been observing these rare animals. The field season 2020 has just ended and the scientist reports alarming tendencies, but also touching moments with the friendly giants.
Dr. Frantzis, which area did you and your team explore?
For six weeks, we sailed along the Hellenic Trench, from Lefkada to southern Crete. There we have been testing the prototype of the whale warning system since June 2019. And then all the way back, of course.
It was a challenging expedition. Why?
The formalities, due to COVID-19, were a real challenge. Also the political tensions between Greece and Turkey caused us problems. Several times, there were warships in our vicinity and fighter planes flying over our heads. And if that wasn’t enough, our captain fell ill during the expedition and had to be taken to hospital.
What about the sperm whales in the area?
During these six weeks we only had three whale sightings. We were able to identify 18 animals. This is significantly less than ten years ago, when four sightings per week were the norm. This is a drastic decrease, which worries us.
What could be the reason? Has the shipping traffic increased any further?
Yes, and it is still the biggest problem for the endangered animals. We have seen new very fast vessels. This is a rather dangerous development for the sperm whales in the Hellenic Trench!
What was the most difficult moment during the expedition?
When the engine suddenly cut out in rough weather and high waves and we were dangerously close to the Cretan coast. The captain had to set sail immediately. Unfortunately, a cable of the whale protection buoy we were pulling behind us got tangled up with the rudder and we lost control of our ship. My only option was to dive under the boat immediately to release the cable from the rudder.
And what was your best moment?
That was when a mother sperm whale approached the ship with her calf. Extraordinary was that for a few moments she let the little one to explore the ship. It behaved like a playful baby. We were so moved that we could hardly speak – a magical moment that made up for all the difficulties we experienced.
Where are we in the development of the whale warning system?
Despite difficult conditions, the test of the three acoustic buoys was very promising. We have to optimize certain parts, of course. Moreover, the currents caused by hurricane “Ianos” tore off two of the three boys – a bitter setback. Although the team searched extensivley, they remained untraceable. Luckily the loss is insured, but it will slightly delay the schedule.
Best moments of the 2020 expedition
Hurricanes such as the particularly violent “Ianos” caused major damage in the Mediterranean region last September. Also south of Crete, where the three buoys of the whale warning system “SaveMoby” are currently being tested. Two of the three test buoys were torn from their moorings by unusually strong currents. Although the team searched intensively, the buoys remained untraceable. The incident shows how demanding the development of this warning system is. The accuracy with which sperm whales can be located is unique. Setbacks are part of the development process. They show what still needs to be optimised – a necessity for the reliable functioning of the system! All other tests were successful. Our goals remain unchanged and we do everything to achieve them in time.
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