Although Italy is mostly renowned for its antique towns, art and history, it has now become popular among eco-tourists, who want to experience whale watching and see other marine wildlife. The Corsican-Ligurian Sea basin, to the north of Corsica, has one of the world’s highest concentrations of whales and dolphins - with as many as eight resident cetacean species.
Among the varied marine life in this area, according to Tethys Research Institute's scientists, who have been studying cetaceans in this area for 27 years, are fin whales, which are the second largest species on earth. There are also sperm whales, the largest of all toothed whales, as well as pilot whales, Risso's dolphins, and striped dolphins.
Valerie, an Tethys expedition participant from Germany, described her experience in seeing a fin whale as, "It was a most particular moment when a group of fin whales swam next to our boat and you could even hear them breathe. It's impossible to describe the impression that such a moment left, because it was something new, something I still have to understand."
The most important area for observing marine mammals extends about 90,000 km2 in the northwestern Mediterranean Sea, between Italy, France, and the Island of Sardinia, encompassing Corsica and the Tuscany Archipelago. It has been declared a specially protected area known as the "Pelagos Sanctuary." It was the first high seas protected area in the world.
In 1990, Tethys Research Institute - , a non-profit NGO founded in 1986 that is dedicated to the preservation of the marine environment and its biodiversity with a focus on cetaceans of the Mediterranean Sea - first proposed a project for the establishment of a marine biosphere reserve. The institute's studies had shown that this was the most important habitat for cetaceans in the region, given its high species diversity and its intense biological activity.
In order to fund the project, Tethys offered paying volunteers the opportunity to join their expeditions at sea in order to see marine life and help researchers with their data collection. Tethys expeditions have attracted thousands of people from all over the world. Participant’s contributions over the years have represented the main funding source for the research.Today, Tethys has a core team of approximately 30 collaborators from all over the world and its professional approach to research has made it one of the leading institutes in its field.
Enthusiastic people participate every year in the week long scientific expeditions in the Ligurian sea that start from the Portosole harbour in Sanremo, Italy. They are held during the long and warm mediterranean summers from May to September. As participants come from all over the world, the official language on board is English. To start an expedition, volunteers are given informal lectures by the researchers. A lot of questions are answered at the beginning of each trip. Why is it so important to protect marine mammals? Because they are are on top of the food chain and saving the whales means saving their environment as well. Which species are most likely to be spotted first? Striped dolphins, the most common species in this area that often bowride as soon as they approach the boat. And what about sperm whales? They used to be rather rare, but in the last few years they have been sighted on a regular basis. They are deep divers that spend up to one hour at a time underwater. Their vocalizations can be easily detected by means of a hydrophone. Scientist are able to follow them at a close range just by listening at their typical "clics" telling where they are heading to and when they are going to come to the surface.
Each monday is rendezvous day for a new group of participants in Sanremo, the town on the Ligurian coast that is also renowned for its music festival. The group, a maximum of 11 paying volunteers plus the skipper and three to four researchers arrive on board the research boat - a confortable 21-meter motorsailer "Pelagos." There is an ice-breaking session on board with a presentation of staff members, information about safety measures, followed by a pizza dinner held in one of the nice restaurants downtown.
The adventure starts on the following day. Wake up time is early - the boat leaves the harbour between 7am and 8 am. The participants and researchers are assigned sighting shifts to make sure no blow of a whale or leap of a dolphin is missed. The schedule of life on board varies, depending on various factors, such as sea state, weather conditions, and research priorities. Work with wild animals cannot be 100% predictable.
Of course, a flat sea is ideal for spotting every kind of marine animal, which may also include small Mobula rays, turtles and sunfish. The first cue may be an inconspicuous one, like just a small splash. Researchers then quickly check with their binoculars - and yes, striped dolphins may come into view! In July there may be some playful juveniles among the group, or even newborns. A few miles from the harbour, still in sight of the coast, the Risso's dolphins can be sighted. They can be up to four meters long and easily identifiable by their bodies, which are naturally covered with white scars. If the sea is calm and the weather forecast is optimal, a night may even be spent at sea, drifting in a warm magical summer night. Some crews have been lucky enough to even hear a whale's blow in the night, which is an awesome experience!
While passing the continental slope, where the sea bottom abruptly declines from 200 to 2000 meters, there are good chances to sight some of the most intriguing marine mammals of the Mediterranean, sperm whales. They can be recognized at a distance by their bulky boxlike heads and by their somewhat weird blow that is directed obliquely forward. Sperm whales in the Mediterranean are mostly males. They usually they stay ten minutes or so resting at the surface and breathing before starting a new dive. Then, with agile and gentle majesty, they begin fluking, maybe just a few meters from the boat.
Fin whales are quite different. They are fast swimmers and are mostly encountered in very deep waters, over 2000 meters, typically halfway between the mainland and Corsica. The Corsican-Ligurian sea is this species' summer feeding grounds, where the whales feast on abundant Mediterranean krill. Genetic analysis has shown that the fin whale population of the Mediterranean is different from its Atlantic counterpart - one finding of the research done by Tethys.
Scientific data are collected on a regular basis. For instance, pictures are taken for "photo-identification," which allows researchers to catalogue every individual animal and to recognize it in case of a resighting. Other sophisticated research techniques include "photogrammetry,"aimed at estimating the length of individual whales, "behavioral sampling" in order to investigate their reaction to approaching boats, and "skin swabbing" for getting DNA samples from dead skin by gently touching Dolphins with a sponge.
The timing of such activities in the wild are unpredictable, and there some hours may pass between one sighting and another. In this case there is time to relax, maybe stop for a swim break or learn basic navigation skills from the skipper - at least for those who are not on duty. All people on board are asked to contribute to boatkeeping activities. Cooking shifts are assigned to two people every day, which often results in an interesting variety of international cooking.
Although not a common occurrence, rough seas occasionally happen. In this case the boat stays in the harbour or in a sheltered bay - at which time participants may do some shopping or visit the surrounding area. Along the Ligurian "Riviera" are picturesque villages and some small colourful towns. The "Balzi Rossi" archaeological site is not to be missed and neither is Villa Hanbury, the magnificent bothanical gardens established back in 19th century by Sir Thomas Hanbury - that lie on a small, steep peninsula that juts southwards from a hundred meters altitude over the sea. Another favourite destination is Montecarlo with its world famous oceanographic museum, which has some interesting exhibitions about mediterranean cetaceans.
At the end of each cruise, having spent one week with the volunteers and researchers, participants are left with many memories "How can we forget", remarked Nino and Eva from the Tethys' staff, "the volunteers crying while looking at the small striped dolphins bowriding in front of them, turning on their sides and glancing at them as if they were truly feeling a bond with the people on board."
And Dinah, who came all the way from Australia, summarizes her experience as a volunteer by saying, "I have learned a lot about these wonderful creatures who inhabit our oceans and remind us of both the antiquity and fragility of Planet Earth."
Maddalena "Maude" Jahoda holds a degree in biology and is involved both in marine research and public awareness. She has done research with Tethys Research Institute, based in Milan, Italy, since 1986. She has written articles on nature and popular science for various Italian magazines and newspapers and has authored popular science books - the latest one being "Le mie balene" "My Whales" about her lifelong experience with cetaceans. She lives in Venice with her husband and her two kids.
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