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Volunteers watching a fin whale in Italy

Environment & Wildlife, From the Field

A calm Sea brings new Marine Wildlife research opportunities in Italy

June 3rd 2020

Tagged: Covid-19, Dolphin, Italy, Mediterranean, Whale

No Sound in the Sanctuary. Italy research project’s battle to assess the indirect impact of Covid-19 on Whales and Dolphins in the Mediterranean, and keep itself afloat.

Far beyond the boundaries set up by humanity or determined by land and sky, with eyes reflecting the deepest blue, lies the domain and sanctuary of the cetaceans, the great mammals of the seas. The uncharacteristically calm waters of the ‘Pelagos Sanctuary’, a Specially Protected Area of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMI) and part of the Ligurian Sea, is dedicated to the protection of it’s marine inhabitants. Home to 8 different cetacean species, from long-finned pilot whales to common Bottlenose dolphins, the Sanctuary has been monitored and documented since the 1990’s and found to hold high levels of species diversity and biological activity. Its creation signalling its international importance, with France, Italy and the Principality of Monaco collaborating and making it the first high-seas and supra-national protected area for marine mammals in the world. 

More than 30 years of research has given rise to the longest data series and one of the biggest databases of cetacean sightings in the Mediterranean Basin. The results obtained by the project have been presented at national and international conferences, and been documented in hundreds of scientific publications. The work and data the project produces simply cannot be underestimated.

The Dolphin & Whale Research Project (Cetacean Sanctuary Research) has contributed to essential research into the impact on cetaceans of industrial scale drift net fishing, organochlorine contaminants and polycyclic aromatic compounds which have been causing havoc in the aquatic food chains of the Mediterranean Sea, and craft/cetacean collisions which have increased inline with the advent of super fast ships and which, in turn, has brought a new sort of pollution to the seas. Acoustic pollution interferes with the communication and orientation of the cetaceans and is another factor causing the increase in collision, damage and potential death to both species.

The data being provided by this project also informs all of these strands of research, additionally offering new insights and dialogue for the current conversation on climate change and the role cetaceans play in the interdependent nature of the planet. Their ability to contribute to the fertilisation of phytoplankton, and its inherent ability to absorb a significant amount of CO2 means Mediterranean whales and dolphins are a vital link to our global well-being, offering a precious resource which we cannot afford to lose. The Sanctuary is a strategic place, not only important in itself, but also as a biosphere reservoir for the whole Mediterranean.

For this project “continuity is the key to understanding the essence of the Sanctuary. An environment in constant transformation that consequently requires equally complex management measures, targeted but flexible over time. The impact of humanity has also changed, becoming more intense. The purpose of our research is knowledge as a tool for better protection” and when the interweaving of different land and water worlds is considered, this protection is for both humanity and cetaceans alike.

Striped dolphin research in ItalyVolunteer with Dolphins | Volunteer with Whales | Working AbroadThe water sparkles invitingly in the early summer sunshine as a dolphin breaks the surface in a sudden display of exuberance. Water droplets explode out and skywards, refracting the light and hanging, momentarily, like tiny suns in their own solar systems before returning to their customary deep reflective blue. Finally, the noise of human interference has dimmed for them. It is not just the skies which breathe expansively with the lack of traffic. The seas have calmed as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic offers them brief respite, a moment’s peace.

And brief it is.

Sadly, this is the only positive that can be gleaned from the global catastrophe, because whilst this period in history is offering insights into the depths of the oceans and the animals which dwell there minus the noise, bustle and impact of cargo lanes and sea traffic, the ability for this project to continue to do so is diminishing daily. The world will turn, people will start to move again and the moment will be lost.

As is the case with many environmental projects, funding is sparse and their reliance on tourism alongside their meagre scientific funding budget has, this year, dealt them a potential fatal blow. Their stream of willing, paying, volunteers, who spend time learning about their work, and contribute their time and energy to ensure the project’s ongoing existence, has abruptly dried up. As multiple countries enforced strict social and travel measures on their citizens, the capacity to support  this project has been relegated to the following years. However without the necessary funds streaming in this year, the possibility of maintaining the project through this unexpected storm is looking slim.

Sabina and Adri, the project director and the citizen science programme manager, say that “in 30 years the project has collected data covering the equivalent of more than six times the circumference of the earth. It has monitored the frequency of sighting of the species, catalogued individuals through photo identification, studied movement and behaviour, recorded vocalisations, identified critical habitats, and collected material for genetic analysis and contaminants. The testimony of the evolution of an ecosystem, [an] extraordinary environment, over an unprecedented period of time.”

Thanks to the spirit of cooperation and the high level of relationship and understanding between the Italian Coast Guard, the project is able to continue to monitor the Sanctuary during the Covid-19 situation. 

“In this way it will be possible to witness the exceptional situation that has arisen: an extraordinary opportunity for a window on the marine world with reduced anthropogenic impact. A comparison, which those who have witnessed thirty years of evolution of the environment can effectively make an unexpected opportunity to be exploited, making the pandemic that has brought the whole world to its knees, also bring something good: help for the protection of a wonderful environment like that of the Mediterranean” says Sabina.

Fin whale next to boat in ItalyVolunteer with Dolphins | Volunteer with Whales | Working Abroad

This year all their scientific funding is being ploughed into counteracting the consequences of the pandemic. Without the ability and demand for research cruises, and the funding this provides, the owners of the research boat will potentially be forced to sell and this longstanding, scientifically vital project will subsequently close.

It’s a devastating situation and the continued global and local instability is having an understandable impact on everyone. Sabina and Adri have, as is the case for most people, been separated from family and friends for most of the past 3 months and are struggling to maintain a positive outlook. Years of planned research in the balance, the constant anxiety about loved ones health and an unbidden opportunity to study cetaceans without the normal presence of human impact that is being wasted and washed away by the lack of finance is the sort of situation which would break anyone. 

However, they continue resolutely and will do all they can to maintain the future of the project. After all, finding ways to study these incredible creatures under these extraordinary circumstances is a one time opportunity and the ongoing need for research and data is undiminished.The current focus of donations is on buying photographic equipment which will aid the project’s skeleton staff to better identify and then record the activity of the whales and dolphins of the region and assess their findings alongside previous years data, taking steps to ensure they do all they can for what has become their aquatic home.

Contributing at this time, by either donation or volunteering will support the work of this essential project and will ensure that the Sanctuary, and the numerous cetacean species it contains, continue to be protected and monitored. In turn providing the region and humanity as a whole with an ever widening understanding of our differing spheres on this beautiful planet and a greater capacity to notice and act on changes in those worlds, which in turn safeguard all our futures.

Written by WorkingAbroad Blog Writer, Rae Hadley

To make a donation to any of our project partners, please click here to donate under PayPal – and remember to write in your reference which project you would like the donation to be given to. It should be the project name so e.g. Whale & Dolphin project, Italy. Or make a donation directly to the project here.

If you are able to join the project as a volunteer later this year, then we would love to see your application! The volunteer project runs from May to October, and we have made volunteer dates available till early October 2020. You can find more info via the project page and if you are ready to join already, you can fill in the online application form by clicking on APPLY NOW. 

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