My first encounter with dolphins at sea happened in 1999 between the Islands of Kalamos and Kastos, when I first came to Greece as a recently graduated Biology student, who had been given the opportunity to participate as a research assistant in the The Ionian Dolphin Project (IDP); a project run by Tethys Research Institute with the aim to ensure the long-term viability of dolphins species living in coastal waters of western Greece.
Guestblog from Joan – IDP Project Manager
Unfortunately, the waters around the island of Kalamos, in the Inner Ionian Sea Archipelago, are not any more the paradise on Earth I was lucky enough to experience back then. Today, only 15 years later, the waters that used to be crowded with sea life including not only dolphins but also swordfish, tuna and large schools of other smaller fish species, which were frequently surrounded by seagulls and terns going at them like kamikazes eager to get a tasty catch, are just a good memory of the past. Nevertheless, thanks to the continuous monitoring efforts, we have been able to observe that a few common dolphins are still occasionally present indicating that they likely roam across a much wider area, occasionally moving into their former wonderland. Our findings suggest that while lack of prey caused by overfishing resulted in habitat loss, decline in numbers and dispersion, common dolphins may re-colonise the area and possibly increase in numbers if timely fisheries management action is taken.
During the last decade the IDP has expanded its research coverage by transferring its field base from Kalamos to Vonitsa; a traditional village, solemnly crowned by its majestic medieval castle, in the southern shore of the Gulf of Ambracia. Our work shows that the Gulf has one of the highest densities of bottlenose dolphins of any Mediterranean area. Ambracian dolphins show high levels of site fidelity within the gulf and individual movements in and out of the Gulf appear to be limited, probably due to dramatic differences between the shallow, highly productive, turbid waters of the Gulf and the deep, oligotrophic (low-nutrient), Ionian Sea open waters. The fact that dolphin numbers seem to remain stable during the past few years should not lead us to any misinterpretation, though. Human activities including agriculture, livestock, grazing, fishing and intensive fish farming have expanded rapidly around the Gulf of Ambracia, resulting in an increasing degradation of its waters. If these issues are not addressed and proper management actions are taken, and taken soon, I fear that we might be witnessing again a dramatic decline in dolphin numbers. Have not we learnt the lesson from Kalamos? For how long will we be condemned to see right in front of us the decay and degradation of our coasts, our seas and the incredible creatures inhabiting them? What about our future generations, in what kind of sea will Max, my youngest nephew, be swimming in a few years time?
At the IDP we are working hard to conserve marine biodiversity for the future. With this in mind, we do not only focus on scientific research; we develope numerous educational and public awareness initiatives to promote marine conservation among the local communities and, more particularly, the youngest generations. Presentations and lectures by our personnel, so far, have covered an audience of more than 3,000 students from schools around our study area. For more than two decades over 1,000 volunteers from more than 40 different nations have joined us in the field and have had a taste of the IDP by sharing with us many experiences in order to get insight on the challenges of dolphin and marine conservation. Next August we will celebrate again the “Nature of Amvrakikos” celebration. Last year it was a great success; however, it all happened in one unique day. This year’s celebration will include different events and activities distributed across a whole week. We aim to develop a local “tradition” for this celebration by progressively involving different stakeholders and local cultural associations. By increasing awareness of the local communities and media about the status and value of dolphins in the area, we aim to encourage decision makers to support marine conservation action.
Back in 1999, I could not imagine that my first hours at sea observing that group of 5 bottlenose dolphins was going to be a life-changing experience, that I would end up dedicating the following years to the study and conservation of those amazing creatures and that Greece would get into me like a drug; like the most addictive and fascinating one.
My most sincere gratitude to every single person who has collaborated, or somehow participated, in the Ionian Dolphin Project and particularly to my friend Elena Politi, a crazy woman who founded the IDP with very little more than her enthusiasm and determination, and to Giovanni Bearzi (Director of the IDP between 2004-2010) for their dedication and guidance. Collaboration between Oceancare and Tethys has been going on for many years giving rise to a strong friendship between both organizations and their continuous support is key to keep us going.