The pleasure from working during the summer is certainly underestimated.
You can ask any student from our ORCAA Lab to confirm. Michelle currently sleeps next to breathing/breaching humpbacks in Alaska; Samara was surveying on a grandiose NOAA vessel doing the infamous turtle rodeos; Selene is preparing for a Californian whale tagging survey-cutting edge marine mammal work; Danielle is enjoying the process of fulfilling and submitting a publication after having spent months with cute little singing frogs.
However, I do admit that not everyone’s summer work can be as XXX (exotic, exciting, exquisite) as a marine scientist’s / bioacoustician’s can. Fortunately, the seas and the oceans of the world remain largely unexplored waiting for us to discover during our summer expeditions.
Adventure is clearly, what a scientist is after. In my case, the adventure starts on a boat while on a dolphin/whale quest, looking for marine life, reading the weather and the surface of the sea, translating the animals’ behavior or the sounds they make, getting the right shot of the dorsal fin or the fluke. However, excitement can also be derived while in the lab, from a simple statistical analysis. There is a certain type of agony during the testing of a model and while anticipating different relationships between variables measured and observed, or estimating population sizes.
My summer 2015 adventure takes place in the island of Zakynthos, in Greece.
Unlike last year, the Ionian Sea has been the setting for my 2015 fieldwork. The Ionian embraces the western part of Greece, is a sea that is shared with Italy, and is home to the group of islands called Eptanisa (=SevenIslands). Corfu, Lefkada, Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Paksoi, Kythira, Ithaki, are the biggest jewels laid on the clear turquoise waters of the Ionian. Green themselves, the islands are covered with luscious pine forests and are a spectacular destination for every yachtsman (or sea-camper) that respects himself.
Zakynthos, where my story sets, is the favorite hatchery for the Mediterranean loggerhead sea turtle. More than 1200 sea turtle nests are found and monitored every summer around the beaches of Laganas Bay. The mother turtles, just like the hordes of tourists, love the long and wide, white fine-sand beaches and lay there their eggs. Since this area is of high ecological importance for this endangered species, the last 16 years, at this corner of the world it was established the National Marine Park of Zakynthos for the conservation of this living “dinosaur” species (sea turtles first appeared 180 million years ago while dinosaurs were still alive).
Oh sea turtles! They have been my very first marine-species-love (first loves never die) and I spent several years working on the conservation of these animals. It has been heart-warming to meet them again.
Besides the sea turtle population status, the Marine Park, the governmental body that manages the protected area, is interested in assessing the status of all marine life within this habitat. Thus, they funded a big study that encompasses the benthic communities, fisheries, megafauna, water quality, shore erosion and the monitoring of all the factors that determine the conservation status of a marine area.
Together with a splendid team from the University of the Aegean and the Department of Marine Science, we designed and implemented a field study to assess the conservation status of the cetacean species encountered within and around the Marine Protected Area (MPA).
Meet the team
The project manager, with whom we designed the fieldwork, is Vasilis Trygonis. Vasilis has a mighty mind and organizing skills that made the project happen against all odds. Vasilis is an engineer that can get into anything and fix everything that requires fixing. Such a pleasure to work with this inspiring mind.
Our skillful captain, Olympos Andreadis, comes from the island of Chios, a place that produces the finest Captains in the world. Olympos flew us on the waves and elegantly drove us close to the dolphins. He would also provid a surprising amount of snacks while at sea!
Sevi Kapota, our MSc student, field assistant, and dolphin enthusiast contributed with her bright character and her excellent data entry qualities. On top of her photography abilities.
The captain came with his vessel. We had a small zodiac that typically hosted four people and equipment. By equipment, I mean loads of water and snacks, sunscreens, hats, sunglasses, four different cameras, binos, GPSs, data loggers, and 2 sets of hydrophones.
We spent a week at Zakynthos. The warmest week of history. At least my history.
Our days would start while it was still night. The alarm was going off at 5 am and we were on the boat by 6 am. While the sun was not yet up the sky, burning our skin and dazzling our minds. Besides being cooler, during the early morning hours, the sea tended to be calmer and welcoming to our objectives. We had a natural and obligatory 2 pm threshold at sea. A local northwesterly wind would force us out of the water as soon as the sun was unbearable. Thank you God Poseidon!
For our visual surveys, we split the horizon in two and the visual observers shared a view of 180 degrees. During every dolphin encounter we would record in detail: the group consistency, the number of individuals and species, behavior, group direction and speed, and demographic info.
At the same time we also practiced our auditory ability with the marvelous (and my personal very favorite) technology of dipping hydrophones. We would systematically stop the boat, turn the engines off, throw the hydrophone into the water and listen to the deep blue. Sometimes dolphin voices would reach my ears in forms of whistles and clicks. We often used this method as a trustworthy alarm that what we are seeking is not too far away.
In the meanwhile we were also recording the weather conditions (cloud cover, sea state, wave and swell height, wind speed, glare, etc) once per hour, or every time the weather would change, since it’s a factor that affects our ability to visually detect the animals in certain distances. On top of that, we implemented a fine scale recording of all anthropogenic pressures to the environment such as litter, fisheries and shipping activity, oil or other kind of pollution, and anything that could be a threat to marine life.
In contrast to what people had previously told us we had several sightings and acoustic recordings of big groups of dolphins. Striped dolphins seem to surround the deeper offshore MPA. Also they surrounded our boat dozens of times to show off their acrobatic skills and their radiant elegance. Every sighting was a joy for the eye and the soul and enriched our knowledge for the cetacean presence in that area.
Besides the boat surveys we deployed two bottom moored hydrophones in distinct habitats within the MPA. These hydrophones will be continuously recording for a few months and we hope that the acoustic data will give us a better idea of the variability of the dolphins’ presence around the specific locations. Fingers crossed for the equipment to wait for us where we deployed it!
During one of the deployments, while exploring the underwater topography, a loggerhead sea turtle swam with us checking out our interference with her home. She approved of the hydrophone and swam away on her jellyfish-quest!
Now the fieldwork is paused, until probably September, and I am stranded at the island of Serifos visiting my family and rethinking heat waves. I am finding the best office I could ever have without walls suffocating me. Sand on my feet, sea in my eyes, and deafening cicadas filling my ears. The ultimate inspiration for my research, my work and my professional motivations.
One does not come to the sea for niceness. One comes for life.
Happy sea days (summer)!