When a small marine conservation organization like OceanCare achieves big things, there is more behind it than just donations: clever teamwork, profound knowledge, and people like Dr. Silvia Frey (48). The conservation biologist and scientific leader of OceanCare is one of six team members of the Swiss NGO which was founded in 1989.
Amid the office work in Zurich, a conference of the Science Committee for the International Whaling Commission in Slovenia, and a new project off the coast of Sicily, the Swiss biologist is visiting Mallorca for a few days: For the first time this summer, OceanCare will start week-long expeditions around the Balearics, which depart from Palma with the intention of recording the population of the sea mammals. “Interested people can accompany us on these expeditions, you don´t need scientific or nautical skills to do so,” says Silvia Frey, who already knew as a child that she would work in the protection of animals and nature.
The research vessel is an 18-metres-long schooner called ‘Toftevaag’, which is currently anchoring off the coast of Port de Sóller and belongs to the Spanish marine conservation organization Alnitak, which cooperates with OceanCare. The captain, three marine biologists, and up to six volunteers, daily scan several hundred square kilometres in search of dolphins, whales and sea turtles – the so called flagship-animals of the Mediterranean.
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“Those three animal groups have an important function in the maritime food chain,” says Silvia. “If they are well, the entire ecosystem of the waters will work.”
The Balearic waters rate as nutritious and during the summer there are many sperm whales, Risso´s dolphins, Whitebelly dolphins, bottle nose dolphins, and loggerhead sea turtles. Additionally, the precipitous underwater topography offers the perfect habitat for the rare and up-to-six-metres-long Cuvier´s whale, which Silvia would like to find out more about.
The day on board starts before sunrise: in hourly shifts the researchers and volunteers scan the water surface with very bright binoculars for dolphin fins or whale fountains. When the sea is calm, dolphins and whales can be seen at a distance of three miles. Hydrophones (underwater microphones), which are connected to headsets and computers, register the typical clicking sound whales produce.
“Dolphins whistle,” Silvia explains, “you see them rather than hearing them, in contrast to sperm whales.” When a whale or a dolphin is spotted, the crew records the exact coordinates and tries to get closer with the Zodiac in order to take pictures and identify the species of the marine mammal. Each animal has certain features from which it can be identified. For dolphins it´s the back fin which often carries scars, or sometimes there is even part of the fin missing.
The data collected on these expeditions – which also include water samplings for measuring the proportion of micro-plastics in the sea – are projected by OceanCare and Alnitak and that way they make statements on size, behaviour, habitats and migratory routes of the populations. The data is also sent to other international protection agreements like ACCOBAMS with the objective of enticing the neighbouring countries of the Mediterranean to disclose other maritime conservation areas. Fishers are advised which areas have the least by-catch possible, which includes sea turtles. On request, commercial shipping routes which are frequented by whales and dolphins should also be diverted.
The number of dolphins and sperm whales has been declining for many years and many species are on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Silvia Frey thinks that the reasons for this lie mainly in the high pollution of the Mediterranean which weakens the immune system of the animals and negatively influences the reproduction. “We want to involve as many people as possible in our projects, inform them, and encourage them to reflect,” says the biologist, “so that they make decisions for the protection of the oceans.”
Silvia Frey carries a small golden dolphin pendant around her neck. She is convinced that if we treat sea creature with more respect and improve their living conditions, in the end we will protect our own lives.
The week-long participation in a sailing expedition costs 980 euros per person, which includes board and lodging. The course language is English.
You can find the dates and more information at www.oceancare.org
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