Reports from the Field

Preservation of the common dolphin, at the center of bio diversity and cultural heritage in the Aegean.


By: Scarlet Kuijper | Posted on: 11 Aug 2018

My background

“I am from Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Ever since I was young, I loved marine life. In the summer one could find me in the Kennemerduinen (dunes), or in the coastal place Zandvoort, swimming in the Northsea. It still feels like my natural habitat.

1981 – 1983: Cetacea; hmm, quite interesting…

There used to be a Dolfirama in Zandvoort back then, were I first became interested in bottlenose dolphins. During the shows, I learnt the given information by heart.
At the same time the activists marine organisation Greenpeace gained much publicity, and became very popular among youth, for saving seal pups from slaughtering in Canada.
Thanks to them I learnt more about cetaceans specificly and marine wildlife in general.

Common dolphins. Published in “Dierenleven in de zeeën” by Albert C. Jensen. About marine wildlife, my favorite.

I continued to read and learn more about cetaceans. By that time I had a dream of doing research on wildlife dolphins, but this seemed to me to be reserved to Jacques-Yves Cousteau only. I didn’t have a clue that a study such as marine biologist actually exists. If I might have known back then, I would have been determined to educate to this profession!

35 years later: announcement of the project.

When visiting Greece on holidays for the first time in 2016, I learned to know about Global Nomadic and the project by a pop-up message on LinkedIn. I was unemployed by that time, and the project gave me a new perspective in life. Thus I applied for this traineeship in the last week of September 2017.
I would describe Global Nomadic as a travel agency, specialized on trainee ships and volunteering at non-profit projects world wide.

About the research organisation..

The executive research institute is a non-profit, non-governmental environmental organisation.

NADP September 2017. MOm warning sign
Author (at the right) together with a fellow trainee on a beach at a warning sign. September 2017

The project was named after a highly endandgered specie; the monk seal, which has its habitat in the eastern Mediterranean. Only a few hundred of these animals still remain worldwide.
Since 1988 They try to preserve the monk seal populations in the Aegean sea, by environmental research, information and education, and raising orfan monk seal pups for the purpose of saving as much inidividuals as possible to maintain a healthy population.

 

The organisation cooperated with other organisations, like, for example, the Erasmus university in Rotterdam and the seal station in Pieterburen in the Netherlands. Though the monk seal project is main core, the project runs other marine projects as well. One of them is the dolphin research project.
The head quarters is located in Athens, but the site location is at Patitiri, a harbour place on Alonissos island. The island is situated in a marine reservation in the Aegean sea; the NMPANS (National Marine Park of Alonissos Northern Sporades). This is the research area of the project. There is a small house uphill for the lodging of trainees, and an info center downtown.

NADP 2018. MOm info center
Author (at the right) with a fellow trainee at the info centre. June 2018

Research on dolphin populations in the marine reservation.

Since 2013 they has started a research project on dolphin populations, named NADP (Northern Aegean Dolphins Project). The purpose of this project is inventarisation and monitoring of dolphins inhabiting the area of the NMPANS. Target species are the (short- beaked) common dolphin Delphinus delphis, the bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus, the striped dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba and the Risso’s dolphin Grampus griseus. The last 3 species mentioned are vulnarable, while the common dolphin is even endangered.

The common dolphin in Greece; history and culture.

So it’s funny though. A specie which is named “common” dolphin, one should expect it to be common, but it actually is endangered. How can that be possible?
Dolphins, especially the common dolphin, are a substantial part of the early Greece history and culture. They are frequently depicted in ancient buildings, like the famous dolphins fresco in the palace of Knossos (approx 1600 B.C.).

Common Dolphins depicted. Aprox 1600 B.C.
Fresco of common dolphins at Knossos palace. Published in “Les dauphines et la liberté” by Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

Up until the 18th century the common dolphin was most seen in the Mediterranian sea, while the bottlenose dolphin was quite rare. Because of human influences this has changed dramatically. During the industrialisation the populations of both species diminished because of environmental pollution. The number of common dolphins decreased even more than the number of bottlenose dolphins. The common dolphin is probably more sensitive to pollution than the bottlenose dolphin. A recent main problem is (industrial) overfishing. In contrast to the bottlenose dolphin, which is quite adaptive by finding new food resources, the common dolphin is a culture fobic specie. These environmental changes led to a smaller population of common dolphins, in relation to the population of bottlenose dolphins existing today.
The presence and viability of vulnerable and endangered species is an indication of a healthy living environment (like “a canary in a coalmine”). Preservation of marine life in general (and the common dolphin in special) is of great importance to the natural values in this area, as well as to the cultural heritage of Greece.

On-board!

The fieldwork is done at day time. The captain sails the boat among the Sporades islands, within the borders of the reservation. A board member is standing by for hands-on assistance and photography. The trainees take positions on the boat, to have a total overview over sea. Each one of them is watching a piece of horizon, to spot dorsal fins. The study director stands at the center, watching as well, using binoculars. During the trip he is instructing the trainees.

Fieldwork: The author is instructed by the Study Director about raw data entry. June 2018

When dolphins are spotted, the observation starts: which kind of species, counting numbers, if possible recognition of males, females and juveniles, kind of behaviour by sounds and movements. This information is noted on forms, as well as time and location of observation. Pictures and film material are made, for the purpose of identification of individuals.

Observation: “It’s a dolphin!”

According to the weather, we had 3 days to sail sea. At the last day, we didn’t expect to spot any dolphins anymore, and directed at the harbour. Then, all of a sudden, a common dolphin jumped in front of my face out of the water. All of us got enthousiastic, went to see them, and took pictures. We counted 3 of them. Two of them swam together, while the third one swam among them. They were very eager to join us, jumped up from the water every now and then, and played in the waves of the boat. When they swam on their back, we tried to determ the sexe. They got along for 25 mins.

 

Back to the base

In the evening the trainees have background information about the project by presentations, held by the study director. All information is registered in a database.

MOm field base
The Study Director compares dorsal fins at the field base. September 2017

Pictures are selected and, if necessary, edited for the purpose of individual identification.A dolphins’ “fingerprint” is the dorsal fin, because of the marks on it; scratches and notches, which are unique for each individual. Relevant pictures are compared and matched to archive material. Annually returning individuals are tracked by this method.

Break…

During the traineeship there are many moments to relax as well. Enjoy Patitiri, do sightseeing at Alonissos or one of the other islands, go to the beach. Share information with the project crew and socialize with fellow trainees, who share the same interest. It was awesome!
The study director told me that after 20 years of data collecting, conclusions can be made. Since I think this a very valuable research project, I aim to return each year to follow the developments. Infact, I went back again!”

 

Dolphin Research Internship in Greece

 

 

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Author Bio
Scarlet Kuijper

Scarlet Kuijper
Posted on: 11 Aug 2018

August 1990 - January 1994: "Assistent manager" at Birds hospital De Toevlucht in Amsterdam. Care of wildlife birds. Fulltime volunteer. August 1994 - July 2003: "Assistent Taekwon-Do instructor (ITF)" at Koryo Dojang in Amsterdam. Fulltime volunteer (for 1,5 years) and employee. August 2003 - January 2009: "Green provider" at CCB in Amsterdam. Fulltime employee. January 2009 - January 2011: "Lab employee" at Solvay Pharmaceuticals, in Weesp. Research Dep. Clinical-Chemistry / Hematology. Fulltime traineeship/employee. February 2011 - January 2012: "Laboratory" at NAK Tuinbouw in Roelofarendsveen. Dep. Research on health of crops and seeds. Fulltime employee. April 2012 - June 2016: "Lab- and field assistant" at Eurofins-Mitox in Amsterdam. Tax Lab. Research on the effect of pesticides on non-target arthropods. Fulltime employee.