Research is most useful when it has concrete implications, being used to inform policies and work alongside stakeholders — crucial to making the right decisions. This is what I discovered during a Mednight-sponsored expedition in the Alboran Sea aboard the Toftevaag, a marine research ship belonging to Alnitak. I am Camille, a 24-year-old graduate with a MA in Development Studies, and I will take you along on our exciting 11-day expedition.

Author: Camille François

Almerimar — Friday 12th May 2023 — Due to suboptimal conditions, we spent the day in Almerimar, doing small but necessary tasks, such as varnishing wood and uploading our photos and videos on the Drive. Close-up photos of dolphins’ fins are very useful, as they can allow us to do photo identification of individual animals. This is notably the case for Risso’s dolphins, whose fins are covered in visible scars. It is much harder to identify pilot whales’ fins, which do not scar so easily, but it is still possible with some patience, perseverance, and a good eye. We select the best pictures, put them in two files (for the left and right side of the cetacean), and we can then compare them with a fin catalogue of individuals previously spotted. Researchers can then learn about abundance, distribution, home range, and more. This complements other information such as social dynamics (do they sometimes change pods from year to year?), behaviour,  the survival rate of the calves (are the calves still here from one sighting to the next?), and so on.

Almerimar — Saturday 13th May 2023 — Even the hardiest mariners need a day’s rest sometimes — and today was the day! The stormy weather didn’t keep us cooped up inside: volunteers went for a walk on the beach while the crew made some headway on their administrative work. Reporting on the drift net issue was the number one priority which kept the Alnitak crew busy, as well as coordinating actions with partners such as OceanCare, and speaking to the media.

Almerimar — Sunday 14th May 2023 — Due to yesterday’s storm, the sea condition was not very good, so we had to stay within sight of the coast. We did not expect as many animal sightings as in previous days as we are mostly looking for pelagic animals, i.e. those living in the open sea rather than in coastal waters. Thankfully, some bottlenose dolphins rewarded us for our efforts. The Alnitak crew explained that as fishermen were not working today, the dolphins were hunting naturally. Tomorrow some of them will undoubtedly return to following trawlers, a worrying behaviour. 

Almerimar — Monday 15th May 2023 — The captain was not sure today’s conditions would allow us to go out at sea. Rather than making all of us wake up early, he warned us that if we heard the motor, we would have to jump out of bed and be ready to sail — if not, we could enjoy sleeping in. At 7 am, we were indeed pulled out of slumber by the roar of the motor. A few minutes later, all hands were on deck, a few preparing breakfast, another sailing, and others getting ready for the lookout that would start once out of the harbour. We had a very quiet day with no significant sightings, which was a little disappointing as it was our last day. I went up the mast in the afternoon, looking into my binoculars without much hope, when I saw a bit of grey on the horizon. Was it a wave, a fin, or a mirage? I looked and looked again but saw nothing. A few minutes later, I swiped the horizon one more time with my binoculars, when I saw it: a dark grey fin, going up and down. I excitedly shouted to the team below that there was something in this direction. I am not so good at spotting animals, unlike some sharp-eyed volunteers and experienced crew, so it felt quite rewarding to finally spot something when we did not hold much hope for the rest of the day. It ended up being a pod of pilot whales, separated into two groups, with some calves. Unusually, they only had a mild interest in our ship, which the captain attributed to them decompressing (like scuba divers, they need to recover after diving deep!). Contrary to what some research teams would have done, after a quick observation and count, we let them in peace and turned the ship back to the harbour rather than bother them to obtain more data.

Almerimar — Tuesday 16th May 2023 — Today marks the official last day of the expedition. No sailing for us today; only packing, cleaning, and saying our goodbyes. Us volunteers used to joke that days on the ship were long, but weeks were short, and indeed, these 11 days flew by. We spent 41 hours on effort, rewarded by 37 sightings of dolphins and whales, 7 turtles, and 3 sharks. The joy of spotting these animals is however tempered by the worry we shared by hearing about these numbers dwindling. The common dolphins we saw that first day have disappeared from entire zones of the Mediterranean Sea. The pilot whales’ pods are visibly downsizing. The first turtle we caught had likely been injured by the engine of a boat. Another one, floating on the surface, was dead. And what about all the animals we did not see? Is this a sign of their decline, or only a hazard? Only time — and more expeditions to collect data — will tell.