30 August 2007

How do you protect a species which is threatened by extinction?

Most of the time, it is an extremely lengthy process that includes research to document the extent of decline, identification of the most appropriate management measures considered necessary to stop the decline and allow for species (or population) recovery, involvement of international agreements, legislative frameworks, NGOs and the media, public awareness and education actions targeting the general public, and communication with policy makers to make them aware of the need to act.

Good scientific evidence is one of the most useful tools, but science alone can do little. A scientist should realize that personal engagement is also necessary. A single person can do a lot in terms of communicating the problem and looking for solutions. In the end, however, it is up to the politicians to listen to this message, and do something to protect the animals. Unfortunately, the typical reaction by policy makers is to call for more research, more planning, a workshop, or whatever can slow down and delay the actual implementation phase. This is what I call ‘conservation on paper’. Scientific reports, conservation plans and good intentions do not actually prevent species extinctions as long as they remain on paper. Timely action is also necessary.

Giovanni Bearzi

Bearzi G. 2007. Marine conservation on paper. Conservation Biology 21(1):1-3. (103 Kb)

27 August 2007

One day in the field

In a recent interview for a Swiss magazine, I was asked to describe a typical day of a researcher on site...

In my experience, this involves waking up early in the morning, rushing to the research boat after having checked and set up all the equipment, spending hours scanning the sea surface in search for dorsal fins. Sometimes dolphins will be found and sometimes not, but you know that you will come back with useful data that help explaining what is going on out there. And then spending the rest of the day entering data, lecturing to volunteers, training the assistants, discussing and solving personal issues that are inevitable when one shares the same roof with colleagues and students, fixing boats, engines and computers that never stop making trouble, refilling the fuel tanks, buying stuff at the supermarket (if one exists), running, running, running.

On some days you will have a good time over dinner, but on other occasions you may be forced to share the table with people who have little in common with you. Ups and downs, moments of glory and moments of deep frustration. Now enjoying a moment of peace with dolphins all around the boat, and then fixing a leaking toilet in a hell-like summer heat. But always having a sense of living your life at full speed, not wasting a minute, and being fully engaged in something that has a meaning.

To me, what gives a sense to this kind of hectic life in the field is the feeling that you are contributing to an attempt to preserve wildlife. If one loses track of this fundamental goal, life as a field researcher does no longer make sense. You are paid little money to work a lot and take care of a number of logistical, relational and other problems that do not look like research at all. Therefore, it is important to realize that conservation-oriented research needs people who are equally determined and capable of recording good behavioural data during a dolphin sighting, talking to the mechanic about that weird noise made by the engine, transcribing the contract for the renting of the field station, or moping the floor. All that is equally important, and nobody is allowed to sign off the most miserable of duties.

Giovanni Bearzi

26 August 2007

How does one become a dolphin researcher?

My suggestion is to come up with reasonably clear ideas about what you want to do, where and how. Ideally, one should aim to something felt as important, and also feasible based on one’s skills and existing opportunities.

I started working on cetaceans by volunteering on board oceanographic research vessels - looking for dorsal fins and flukes during the day and working in the wet lab during the night. Then I used my father’s small inflatable boat to start a study on dolphins around Losinj, Croatia. Eventually, this became the longest-running study of bottlenose dolphins in the Mediterranean.

Don’t miss opportunities to make experience. You may try to participate in some field or lab activity, doing work as close to your interests as possible to gain practical experience on that particular subject. Find out what is the area where you do particularly well (this may include lab work, photography, statistics or even management, environmental policy, public awareness). If you ‘feel good’ doing something and have a sense of being ‘at home’ whenever you do that, then you may have found your own specialty. Go for it, and try to develop a specific project or an interesting proposal to motivate other people and attract funding.

Do not rely too much on letters and CVs. Try to meet the relevant people in person, at their offices or even in the field. Attend marine mammal and marine conservation conferences, visit various institutes and NGOs. Show that your choice of working with a person or organization is motivated and based on some kind of ‘affinity’.

Courses organized by Tethys (www.tethys.org) can be a reasonable first step for gaining basic experience, knowing how you feel on a boat or at a field station, chat with researchers and possibly identify your areas of interest. You may consider trying different experiences and research groups before deciding what works best for you. In any case, do not put everything in somebody else’s hands: the choice should be yours.

As a general rule, you have better chances of success if you do something based on enthusiasm and passion, and you do not lose sight of your goals along the way.

Giovanni Bearzi

Useful link:
SMM - Strategies for Pursuing a Career in Marine Mammal Science

24 August 2007

Working with Tethys as an assistant

Working with Tethys as an assistant, during much of this summer, provided me with an opportunity to widen my knowledge. Not only about the dolphins, but also about myself.

Going to a foreign country (I'm Hungarian) and facing the challenges of a different culture is always a pleasant experience. But doing research in the field has been even more challenging, and brought about the big issue of what I really want to do in my life.

While I was working on board, collecting data and recording the behaviour of dolphins, my interest in these wonderful marine mammals has ever increased. But this did not happen on my first sighting. To be honest, on my first survey I just wanted to do a proper job, and this wasn't an easy task because I was required to do so many things at once. At times I felt completely lost…

But there was always someone who helped me out of the mist. This was the pleasant part of working in a team. Together, you work hard to achieve the same goals, collect data in the best possible way, and pay much attention to the details. A large number of details!

During my first sighting I was fully focused on my duties and unable to realise how wonderful these animals are. This would come later on, when I felt more comfortable with my duties. Then, I realized how amazing every single sighting can be.

I could find beauty in every survey. Even if we did not find dolphins, there were so many interesting situations in the wild - you just had to pay attention.

Once we stopped next to a mussel farm, waiting for a sea turtle to surface. While we were in a complete silent, the wide vocal repertoire of a number of terns standing fiercely on the mussel buoys hit our ears. It was an amazing listening to their communication, in their own territory.

If you work at sea, you need to observe wildlife and appreciate that all animals are part of the ecosystem. Even if your focus is primarily on dolphins, it is by paying careful attention to whatever happens around you that you can call yourself a researcher.

If you do so, your days end with a feeling that tomorrow, again, you can go out at sea and be blessed by a sense of wildlife. You can step out of your narrow human path and participate in the larger painting of Nature.

This has been my first experience doing field work, and I must say that it doesn't compare to my previous work in the neurophysiology lab, which I still love. Being in contact with the animals in their natural environment makes a difference, and now I know that this is what I really wanted to do.

I owe a lot of thanks to Joan, Giovanni and Silvia, who taught me so many things. Besides my duties I had opportunities of doing photo-identification, driving the boat, spending long hours on dorsal fin matching, and committing to many other activities that are essential to the project. I also enjoyed sharing my little knowledge with the volunteers. Seeing how interested they are provided me with extra energy, and gave additional meaning to what I was doing.

Overall, this summer has been one of my best. I got involved in a research project, I tried out my skills as a field researcher, and I was motivated to move confidently towards meaningful goals.

Susanna Pereszlenyi

19 August 2007

A mother bottlenose dolphin mourning her dead newborn calf in the Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece

On the 3rd and 4th of July, 2007, one common bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus was observed interacting with a dead newborn calf in the semi-closed waters of the Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece.

The behaviour of the presumed mother was observed by Tethys researchers Joan Gonzalvo Villegas and Zsuzsanna Pereszlenyi and by Earthwatch volunteers for approximately 4.5 hours under an oppressive summer heat, in a dead-calm sea.

Whilst researchers must avoid being driven by their own feelings and make arbitrary interpretations, in this case it was quite clear that the mother was mourning. She seemed to be unable to accept the death, and was behaving as if there was any hope of rescuing her calf.

She lifted the little corpse above the surface, in an apparent late attempt to let the calf breath. She also pushed the calf underwater, perhaps hoping that the baby could dive again. These behaviours were repeated over and over again, and sometimes frantically, during two days of observation.

The mother did never separate from her calf. From the boat, researchers and volunteers could hear heartbreaking cries while she touched her offspring with the rostrum and pectoral fins. Witnessing such desperate behaviour was a shocking experience for those on board the research boat.

From time to time, other dolphins from the Amvrakikos Gulf population (estimated by Tethys researchers at approximately 150 individuals), approached briefly to see what was going on. But they did not show much interest, and the mother was soon left alone with her grief.

A source of concern for the researchers was that the mother was never observed diving or feeding during about 2 hours of observations on the first day, and another 2.5 hours on the second day. Bottlenose dolphins are large warm-blooded marine mammals with high metabolic rates, and are supposed to take much food to stay healthy. Spending long hours or even days after a dead calf could potentially weaken the mother and threaten her survival.

The observations were documented by 532 digital photos taken on the first day, and 138 photos taken on the second day. A selection of 48 photos has been posted online and can be viewed at http://www.tethys.org/projects/IDP/deadcalf2007/. The photos refer to both observation days.

Because of the heat, the calf - floating dead at the surface - was quickly decomposing, and the last photos show a bloated calf lacking large pieces of skin and with wounds caused by the decomposition processes. The mother was seen removing pieces of skin and tissue from the corpse - possibly an attempt to 'clean' the calf.

The researchers on board did not feel like taking the calf away from the mother to perform scientific investigations (e.g. a necropsy of the calf). Their decision was intended as a form of respect towards a highly-evolved animal, the deep suffering of whom was obvious enough. All the researchers did was recording behavioural information at 1-min intervals, throughout the observations, and collect a small sample of the calf's skin for future genetic analyses.

The mother is a known animal (ID: 03046) who has been observed in the Gulf since 2003. In September 2004 she had another calf, who apparently survived.

Although Tethys researchers conduct photo-identification surveys in the Gulf almost on a daily basis, at the time when this report is being written the mother was not encountered again. The researchers are now planning to write a scientific note to report this event in full detail. It would be interesting to see if the mother will be encountered in the future, and how she behaves. We hope that eventually she let go, accepting the loss of her baby as an event that - albeit grim - is not infrequent among wild dolphins.

Giovanni Bearzi


For additional information on bottlenose dolphins in the Amvrakikos Gulf see:

Bearzi G., Agazzi S., Bonizzoni S., Costa M., Azzellino A. 2007. Dolphins in a bottle: abundance, residency patterns and conservation of bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus in the semi-closed eutrophic Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 17. doi: 10.1002/aqc.843.

16 August 2007

Kalamos: one more bottlenose dolphin entangled

Yesterday, August 15th, 2007, a bottlenose dolphin from Kalamos was found entangled in a piece of trammel net by Tethys researchers Marina Costa and Annalise Petroselli. The net apparently got stuck into the dolphin’s blowhole, possibly as the animal inhaled while being wrapped in a loose portion of net.

The dolphin is now dragging a long portion of net, continuing well beyond its flukes. This affects its swimming pattern and reduces its present chances of survival.

While entanglement in the blowhole may look like a rare event, there is another bottlenose dolphin around Kalamos, ‘Pira’, who is in a similar situation. Fortunatly, in the case of Pira the piece of net coming out of the blowhole is much smaller.

The third bottlenose dolphin from Kalamos having serious entanglement problems likely died in the past months. This animal, nicknamed ‘Zoi’, was first observed two years ago as a calf, with fishing gear tightly wrapped around its head. Last year Zoi’s rostrum and head were devastated as the dolphin grew bigger. This year Zoi was not resighted and Zoi’s mother, ‘Lara’, was seen swimming alone.

There are only about 20 bottlenose dolphin living in a 1000 km2 area around the island of Kalamos, Greece. Entanglement in fishing gear may represent a significant source of mortality that threatens the survival of this small community.

Around Kalamos, overfishing and bycatch in fishing gear are thought to be primary reasons behind the decline of the only other cetacean species found there, short-beaked common dolphins, that dropped from about 120 to less than 20 animals between 1995-2006.

Giovanni Bearzi

13 August 2007

Kalamos experiences, August 2007

We have been very blessed with our dolphin sightings, wonderful weather and a brilliant mixture of nationalities: Italian, Dutch, American and one Australian – me ☺

I’ve learnt so much about all aspects of the Mediterranean Sea life and will take my experiences and adventures home with me or use them again next time I volunteer in a different project.

Every day has been absolutely magical and has been filled with heaps of laughter, happiness and joy. So to you out there, if you’re deciding whether to do this or not, don’t hesitate a moment longer! Come join the Tethys team and enhance your spirit, courage and independence, you’ll never regret it for a second. Thank you friends for making this a blissful and memorable experience. With Love.

Kylie, Australia


The week that I have spent here in Episkopi with the Tethys research team has been fantastic! In addition to all the amazing dolphin sightings, photo opportunities, and photo cropping sessions, we have had invaluable lectures and time to get to know each other.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to have come here and have such a great experience. I wouldn’t hesitate to come again, and will recommend this project to all my science teacher colleagues!

I am so excited to get back home to Houston, Texas and start planning how I will use this experience and everything I learned to help fellow science teachers and students! THANKS for all the hard work and dedication that I know it takes to continue with this important research, and for being so willing to host volunteers and so accommodating to those of us who want to share it with you!

Dorcie, USA