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Dolphin Sightings around Greece

Short-beaked common dolphin Photo © Joan Gonzalvo; Ionian Dolphin Project

This month we are excited to share with Peaks Island, not only birds, but dolphins and porpoises found not only in Casco Bay, but waters surrounding the Greek Islands.

Michelle and Butch shared with us sightings of Atlantic white-sided dolphins from the “Whisper” in early September. This experience may have influenced Michelle in her decision to visit Greece. There she volunteered with the group, Tethys, that monitors dolphins, among other conservation projects, in the Mediterranean Sea. She shares her experiences in Gulf of Ambracia and the Ionian Sea (western Greece) with us. Michelle nicely compares species found here in Casco Bay to those off the Greek Islands, and describes what conservation efforts (including what we can do as individual citizens) are underway here and in the Mediterranean Sea. I hope you enjoy her story and photographs as much as I have.

The Greek Islands, with Vonitsa, Gulf of Ambracia (see below map for details), and the Ionian Sea

Enlarged roadmap of Vonitsa area showing the Gulf of Ambracia (in Greek: Amvrakikos Gulf)

Short-beaked common dolphins The above 3 Photos © Joan Gonzalvo; Ionian Dolphin Project


By Michelle H. Brown

Like many of us on Peaks Island, I love to travel and I love to volunteer for causes that I believe in. With that in mind, I combined my life-long interest in visiting Greece with learning more about dolphins and volunteered for a dolphin research project in western Greece last September. Tethys, an organization based in Italy who has been working with researchers and volunteers since 1986, manages the project. Tethy’s long-term goal is to protect the biodiversity of the Mediterranean Sea through field research, partnering with local people and governments on conservation projects, and local and global outreach. After arriving in Athens I managed to get myself to the other side of the country via bus to Vonitsa, where the Tethys Ionian Dolphin Project Research Station was located, where I met my other volunteer team members and the Director of the project, Joan (pronounced Shoan) Gonzalo. Joan has been researching Mediterranean dolphins for over 20 years. We all settled in the volunteer quarters at the research station where we received a short course in dolphin natural history and our directions for the week ahead.

Joan Gonzalvo, Wildlife Biologist (Italy), Nurse (Austria) Photo © Michelle Brown

We were quite the international crew consisting of myself from the States, two nurses from Austria, a married couple from Great Britain (who were hilarious, like hanging out with Monty Python for a week), Joan from Catalonia, Spain and a wildlife biology intern from Italy.

International Volunteers Photo © Joan Gonzalvo; Ionian Dolphin Project

Our week consisted of going out in the mornings in a rigid-hulled inflatable boat in either the Ionian Sea or the Gulf of Ambracia to simply look for dolphins while running a transect line. Once individuals from the two species in the area, bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) or short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), were seen (with much excitement from the crew of course), the job of the volunteers was to shout out, loud and clear - where the dolphins were (using clock locations around the boat), how many we saw, and estimate how far they were away (i.e. 2 dolphins at 2:00, 100 meters). Joan could then focus on taking pictures of the dolphins’ dorsal fins, following our shouted out locations (Funny note: I found out that they love having Americans on the project because we have no problem shouting things out at the top of our lungs compared to volunteers from other countries). Once Joan felt that he had a complete set of individual picture data, we would head back to the research station. Once there, we went through the pictures, and cropped them to focus on dorsal fins. We compared the scratches, bite wounds, and other scars on the dorsal fins with others in that picture set. With these identification features we were able to compare and identify individuals with those in their data bank pictures going back 20 years. This technique is similar to what you’ve heard researchers do to identify whale individuals. In this way, not only has Tethy’s been able to monitor the status of dolphins in the Ionian Sea and Gulf of Ambracia but also to what’s happening with the individual dolphins that have called that area home since the project began.

Bottlenose Dolphins (Note shapes and distinguishing marks on dorsal fins)

Photo © Joan Gonzalvo; Ionian Dolphin Project

So what are they finding? Unfortunately, like most areas of the world, Greece has its own ocean conservation issues that include pollution and over-fishing. Rivers that flow through cities and agricultural areas carry pollutants into the ocean. More and more sightings of dolphins with skin lesions and infections are occurring. There are also an increasing number of fish farms cropping up in both the Gulf of Ambracia and the Ionian Sea with concerns that these may end up being another source of pollutants. Near shore over-fishing has caused many of the same fish species that both these dolphin species and humans eat (i.e. species that school like sardines and herring) to decrease in numbers. Dolphins that normally forage near shore are moving further and further out into the ocean looking for food and near shore sightings of these individuals are becoming fewer and far between.

What is Tethy’s doing to address these problems? Fortunately, Tethys and Joan himself, who have diligently worked for 20 years to get the word out about these dolphin populations, are finally getting the ear of the Greek government. Together, they are working with Greek officials to develop a management plan for the area that will include pollution controls, public education, fishing regulations, and hopefully, more interest in local people in the health of their dolphins. Joan is also beginning to get recognition from the global cetacean research community and he is being increasingly asked to provide talks at conferences and conduct training on how he collects and manages his dolphin data. Plus, by training and educating volunteers, Tethy’s has cultivated more supporters worldwide who can talk about their work and be more aware of the factors that affect dolphins and other marine mammals.

So what about our dolphins here in the Gulf of Maine, you ask? From a report entitled - The Gulf of Maine in Context June 2010 from the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, I learned that the main species of dolphin and porpoise sighted (in descending order) in the Gulf of Maine are harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), white-sided dolphin (Lageno­rhynchus acutus), and two species of pilot whales (long-finned - Globicephala melas; and short-finned - Globicephala macrorhynchus) and the common dolphin (Delphinus delphinus). Two other dolphin species, Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates) and white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) are occasionally seen. Significant numbers of (~40,000) of both white-sided dolphin and harbour porpoise reside in the Gulf of Maine year round, with virtually 100% of the northeast shelf population being located here. The Gulf of Maine-Bay of Fundy population of harbour porpoise is one of four in the western North Atlantic (NOAA 2006). The harbour porpoise is listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act and under the Canadian Species at Risk Act. Fortunately, this species is the only member of this group of small cetaceans that is currently a federally listed species.

Here, back home, our own Casco Bay is facing some of its own ocean conservation issues. For example, many of us have been reading in the Portland Press Herald how researchers are finding water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine steadily increasing which could lead to changes in species composition and distribution. Increasing nitrogen pollution from fertilizers and decreasing fish stocks of certain species are also local issues to be aware of.

However, there are actions we can take as individuals that will go a long way towards keeping our Casco Bay healthy for marine mammals and in the long run, for ourselves. These actions include: Being careful that the type of fish we buy have healthy harvestable populations; not using fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides indiscriminately that end up flowing into and affecting the health of our local ocean waters; be conservative in your use of fossil fuels; supporting, through volunteering and/or donations, local ocean conservation groups (like MMoMe and the Friends of Casco Bay, to name a few); and reporting any stranded or wounded marine mammal you see to the Marine Mammals of Maine (MMoMe) Hotline at 800-532-9551. And, of course, never cease to be amazed and excited and feel fortunate whenever you see these incredible animals and seek to learn more about them as well as the other the other ocean creatures we share our Casco Bay with.

Important websites:

For more information about Tethy's and their projects, please see their website at:

For more detailed information on Tethys Dolphin Research Project, please see their website at:

For more information on The Gulf of Maine in Context June 2010 from the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment (website:

For more information on steps to take and keep in mind when you see a marine mammal of concern, see the MMoMe website at:

For more information on how to choose seafood that's fished or farmed in ways that have less impact on the environment, see Monterey Bay Aquariums Seafood Watch website at:

Additional Information:

Written by: Michelle H. Brown

Reviewed by: Patty and Marty

Photographs by: Photos © Joan Gonzalvo, Ionian Dolphin Project ( and Photo © Michelle Brown

Thank you for your interest in Michelle's blog about the dolphins found in the Mediterranean Sea. If you have any questions or comments you can send them to:

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