(A story that follows the adventures of Niki Diogou, the first person that hitchhiked at the Aegean Sea to record dolphin “voices” before somebody else does it)

Since it has been suggested that the idea of leaving the oceans (and then coming down from the trees) was not a wise thing to do, I decided to return to our distant ancestor’s water element for this summer. I spent 2 weeks of late

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Let’s go back

July and early August at the remnant of the ancient Sea Tethys, where also happens to be my motherland. Tethys Sea, prior to its closure into the Mediterranean Sea, it was the one of the 2 world oceans during the Earth’s early life, when geography class would had been so much simpler (history too) with Pangaea being a unique super-continent. Greece was covered by the

pangaea
The super-continent and the Oceans before they broke up

Tethys and nowadays there are fossils at the Aegean islands to prove this intimacy. The Tethys Sea was named by Eduard Suess  (don’t get confused, this is a different Dr. Suess ) after the Greek goddess Tethys. She was the daughter of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth), both sister and wife of Oceanus (there are no taboos if you are a god).

After praying to all the Greek sea gods that I could remember for an opportunity to collect the data I needed for my 3rd thesis chapter, the opportunity arose. Well to be accurate, didn’t really arise itself. I did push it a bit to come up…

The history of every major marine research has passed through 3 recognizable stages, those of: Survival, Enquiry and Sophistication. Otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance the first phase is characterized by the question “how can I get funding”. The second, by the question “why do I do this research”, and the third “where in the world is the seawater warmer and clearer”.

To answer the first question I wrote this post.

To answer the second question, I wrote my previous blog.

And for the third ultimate question about the meaning of life, universe and absolutely everything, eeeh I meant the sampling site, the ultimate answer: Greece!

Concerning the second question, I will give you a summary of my field work purpose. Though, Douglas Adams  has already expressed the importance of my research:

Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons. The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish”.

To avoid this sort of misunderstandings, bio-acousticians have been feverishly working on decoding the dolphins’ vocalizations.
First step towards this direction is telling the voices of different species apart.

Different species of cetaceans are known to produce different types of sounds, resulting from various factors such as morphology, genetics, ecology, sociality, and culture. For example, the calls that sperm whales, humpbacks and common dolphins produce are significantly different from each other in so many ways that are clearly distinguishable by an expert ear (and eye that inspects the spectrograms). This fact makes the lives of the bio-acousticians easier because it helps us to identify different species of whales and dolphins by just listening to them.

Things though are more complicated than this. It has been shown that within the same species, some cetaceans tend to produce different sounds when they live in different areas. So the sperm whales in the Pacific produce codas (a type of vocalization indicative of sociality and communication) that are different to the ones of the Mediterranean sperm whales. Similar is the case for pods of killer whales that use different habitats and target different prey. Likewise, different geographic populations of dolphins that belong in the same species have different call characteristics. It is like speaking dialects or simply having an accent. The differences seem to be greater when the geographical distance increases.

The geographic variations of cetacean sounds are usually divided microgeographically and macrogeographically. For instance the striped dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea produce different whistles than the ones in the Atlantic. Also the striped dolphins that live in the western Med sound differently than the ones that dwell in the eastern side. Applying the same logic, the ones that inhabit the Aegean Sea will have a different “accent” than the Ionian Sea habitants. Past studies have revealed the existence of variations in the whistle acoustic structure of a striped dolphin within the different regions of the Mediterranean Sea. However the Aegean Sea is still an acoustically pristine place. The dolphins we encounter there (common, striped, bottlenose, and risso) have not been acoustically recorded (during visual encounters) and classified. YET!

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Maps always help

Being a communicative creature myself, I feel the need of these dolphins in the Aegean to be understood. 🙂

And the same time I will use this information to identify different dolphin species in my N. Aegean acoustic dataset. 😉

I return to the first survival question.  If you have read my previous post you will probably remember my public invitation for funding to achieve the acoustic sampling in the area of my interest. In case you are not fortunate enough to study and work on the field with the charismatic megafauna, I should enlighten you into the specific  requirements of cetacean research: HIGH BUDGET! Cetacean research is particularly expensive. Money for renting a boat, gas money for the boat, money for the boat crew (a captain at least is required) and money for the acoustic instrumentation.

Because the times are hard and funding appears dimly or not at all in the horizon, I had to recruit some old skills of mine to make this happen. Hitchhiking skills (contacts also help, so get your selves out to these conferences)!

I first thumbed a ride when I was doing my undergraduate at the island of Lesvos, in Greece.  With my friends we would hitchhike to the university which was slightly further from downtown. Too far to walk when you are already late for the morning lecture, too close to wait for the bus that has a very irregular schedule, too expensive for taxi while being a student, and just the right distance to be given a lift! That is when my hitchhiker’s career commenced. Now that I have reached a Ph.D level and I only possess a bicycle, my hitchhiking skills have equally improved and can be utilized for science. In this case, the thumb got replaced by emails, phone calls and meetings.

Not too far from the area that I have my hydrophone deployed and I get part of my acoustic data; there is the island of Alonissos. T

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Blue: where Niki’s Dolphin Quest took place

here, it is founded the first Marine Protected Area in Greece that happens also to be the biggest in Europe. The marine area around Alonissos Island, together with 6 more islands, 22 islets and rocky outcrops is one of the few remaining habitats of the Mediterranean monk seal; the only seal specie in Med. In the past, the monk seal was very common all along the Mediterranean coasts.

Nowadays, it is on e of the world’s most endangered marine mammals and

half of its current population lives in Greece. For this reason in 1992, the National Marine Park of Alonissos, Northern Sporades was established and is dedicated to the protection of this rare species. There are laws a

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Too cute to go extinct

nd regulations that limit certain anthropogenic activities that could interfere with the animals’ welfare and the population’s survival. To impose these regulations and ensure the good management of the reserve, the guards of the Marine Park patrol daily the marine protected area. And this is where my thumb comes up. The lovely people that work for the Marine Park accepted me on their daily patrols, allowed me to get on their boat and look for dolphins while they were looking for any illegal activity.

At work with the National Marine Park of Northern Sporades' team
At work with the National Marine Park of Northern Sporades’ team

So I bought a big hat, I got my dipping hydrophone, swimming suit as my uniform and my Dolphin Quest began!

First day on the boat was mind blowing! Traveling with 35 miles/hour, stop every now and then to exotic locations, blue caves, a long break to rest the engine and the guards, have some drinks and swim  in turquoise water coves. Marvelous sites that few have had the chance to visit.

And you will rightfully ask: did you find the dolphins?

No. But it was a good way to break the ice!

The following days were much more effective. I explained that for the purposes of my research we would have to go slower. As a hitchhiker I hesitated to reinforce my own rules to my hosts but soon our zodiac was going with 15 miles/hour and had 2 extra visual observers on board scanning the horizon for dorsal fins and splashes.

Still though, no dolphins in sight.

You see, the ocean is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to ocean. Searching for dolphins there is not an easy job. It is fun but not easy. It can take unpredictable amount of time until you get to see them. And I had only a few days before my flight back to USA…

Fortunately dolphins are curious creatures and if the boat is not too noisy they will swing by for a bit to check it out and hopefully play with its wake. Just like this. Eeeeeh, I wish.

A couple of days went by without any dolphin luck. And the thump comes out again for extra rides. I needed more time in the sea.

Lucky me, the same time period, the NGO MOm, the Hellenic Society for the Study

and Protection of the Monk seal  who has been monitoring the monk seal population and promoting the establishment of a Marine Park for almost the last 30 years also operates in the same area. The last 2 years Mom has been running the Northern Aegean Dolphin Project . A team of volunteers and their lovely project leader, also called Niki, perform daily visual transect surveys to study the population and ecology of the dolphins in the Marine Park region. I

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The MOm team and I, happy after an exciting sighting

hitched a ride with them too. Success from our very first cruise! A monk

seal sighting first thing in the morning and a big group of striped dolphins that we were able to stalk for a while. Stalk and eavesdrop on their conversations! This raised my expectations.

Stalking a groups of striped dolphins
Stalking a groups of striped dolphins

My days passed with me jumping from the one vessel to the other exploring extensively the N. Aegean Sea. But without enough dolphin sightings. And while I was trying to compromise with the idea of having only striped dolphins’ recordings and thinking of the shift I would give to my research, disappointingly looking for any dolphins, the common dolphins appeared and gave me hope again! Fortunately, trustworthy hope. Later on the same day a mixed group of common and bottlenose dolphins was having a long dinner close to our boat. After recording them for long time, I did not resist jumping in to the water. There were far enough to not be interrupted by my presence but close enough to hear them while I had my head underwater. I was shaking with excitement. Dream comes true. Check.

My field trip ended with recordings from 3 different dolphin species, 2 monk seal encounters, countless seabirds, and 3 illegal spear-gun divers. The sea CSI in action!

The only problem was that I had to go. Too soon I think. But would there ever be a right time to leave this heavenly place?

Take me back!
Take me back!

And now I am back in Newport, my skin has still some tan left and all the Greek memories are still fresh with strong salty flavor. My suggestion is the following:

Do you want to implement research but you don’t have funds to do it? DON’T PANIC. There are ways and alternatives. Consider the hitchhiking method.  It is an inexpensive way to do your sampling and it essentially means collaborating, meeting people, working together, sharing and having a common direction. I assure you, it’s the journey not the destination that matters.

My gratitude to the National Marine Park of Northern Sporades and MOm, the Northern Aegean Dolphin Project, for their hospitality and help. Definitely worth a visit and I am already craving my return!

So long and thanks for all the dolphins!

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