Spaghetti on the sea – Cetaceans detection [ENG - Part #1]

3년 전


Despite our willingness to publish a logbook, we realized that it is easier to publish an article from Iceland than in the middle of the sea. For this reason, we decided to tell our experience ,once finished, divided into two parts: one dedicated to the real experience while the other will deal in detail with all the species we have observed. During these days we had the opportunity to throw the anchor in various places belonging to the Tuscan Archipelago the first week, with the Cetacean Research Center, while the second week the activity was mainly carried out in the Ligurian Sea with the Tethys institute . Both research activities aim to understand the conservation status of cetaceans in the Mediterranean Sea through active monitoring, and to understand how to optimize the management of the marine environment to maintain their population. To make the idea even more, however, it is necessary to start from the beginning by delving into everything that can best represent what actually means to be on a research vessel. When you come back from an experience of this kind, the people who listen are divided into those who believe you have spent the whole week lying in the sun lulled by the waves and those who, with admiration and a little envy, think about how much it is wonderful to swim with the dolphins. In reality, there is much more than what people perceive and we want to explain why, hoping to be able to transmit all the emotions we have experienced and that, even now that we are back to our busy life in Milan, we struggle to leave us behind.


7.30 am, the alarm rings

Yeah, it would be nice to be able to relax on the boat waking up comfortably a few hours later, but you have to start early to carry out all operations on board in order to start monitoring at a time that guarantees at least one sighting before lunch. In reality, this is not at all heavy because the light begins pleasantly to spread more and more intensely from dawn allowing a gradual awakening, for the lazy ones the alarm only gives the coup de grace. As in any self-respecting crew, everyone has their own tasks, in turn there are those who cook, who cleans inside and who cleans outside. Once breakfast is finished and all internal and external cleaning operations are carried out, there is only time for a quick bath before raising the anchor and starting to start monitoring. When starting for monitoring there are some fundamental information to collect so that we can have valid reference points to record the starting conditions. For this purpose, monitoring cards exist. The monitoring sheets are, therefore, sheets that are compiled every morning and report some information such as sea conditions, wind, wind direction, the number of observatories and binoculars used, the temperature of the sea and the area of monitoring. After completing the form, the monitoring can officially be considered open: from that moment every crew member chooses a point of the vessel to occupy in such a way as to be able to scrutinize a direction different from all other observers to optimize the efficiency of the 'activities. The monitoring will occupy the whole morning, and part of the early afternoon, until the pre-established destination is reached and the people in charge will begin to prepare lunch. Although this activity may seem monotonous, it is challenging to keep under control the perpetual motion of the water that, as soon as the attention drops slightly, magically draws and makes you see what we would like to see at all costs but that, in reality, does not exist . Here then a seagull floating, a reflection or (alas) a piece of plastic, can easily deceive us of having seen the fin of a dolphin. At other times, however, what we saw in the distance is exactly what we were looking for. At this point what must be done is to keep the group under control with the binoculars until you reach a distance necessary to collect all the information you need, but enough not to disturb and respect the individuals we have been lucky to meet. Also in this context everyone has his / her tasks, some measure the apnea time of each individual, the number of breaths, the number of individuals and other information that are reported on another card, the sighting card. The sighting card shows general information such as the start / end time, the coordinates both initial, intermediate, final and distance from the coast. Continuing, more specific data should be reported concerning the species sighted as the number of individuals, the distance from the boat, the sex and the presence of puppies. Finally, a part of the card shows all the observed behaviors, both individual and collective. Once you have closed the sighting (or sightings) and arrived at your destination, you are ready to consume the long-awaited and deserved lunch. The afternoon program varies according to the day of the week: in the first half of the week the time is devoted to several lessons aimed at deepening the anatomy, physiology and behavior of cetaceans, while in the second half of the week the activity is concentrated on the photo identification of individuals spotted during the monitoring mornings. Once the lectures and the photo identification are over, the evening arrives that, although sadly marking the end of a day and the progressive approach at the end of the experience, is filled with the serenity of ten people sitting at a table eating or lying on the bow of the boat to look at the stars and tell how beautiful this life is.


The tools used

When we talk about research, we often think of expensive and unattainable tools, laboratories and means that allow us to see something that, simply, everyone else can not see. In reality, what happens in this field is something particularly interesting since the tools used (not all of course, most of them) are also within the reach of people who do not necessarily have them for research purposes. Without neglecting the need to have a boat that allows you to move around in the habitat of these animals, you need to be able to identify them. To do this, there are several methods, from observing the sea with a binoculars in search of movement, to identifying the sounds emitted by the various individuals by means of particular underwater microphones called hydrophones. One of the distinctive characteristics of cetaceans is the ability to compress the air in the system of the nasal sacs in order to produce vibrations that propagate in the aquatic environment in a very effective way. The vocalizations that can be perceived are many and of different kinds, each species has a certain number attributable only to that particular species. For this reason, using a hydrophone, it is possible to understand not only the direction of origin of the vocalization, but also the species belonging to the specimen that is being listened to before identifying it physically. Another distinctive feature of cetaceans is their extraordinary ability to perform apneas with timing ranging from 10 minutes of Tursiope and Stenella (up to 200m depth), up to over two hours in the case of the Sperm whale (up to 3000m depth ). This is possible thanks to the fact that the cetaceans in immersion have a quantity of gas inside the lungs almost nil to avoid pressure imbalances that would not allow to reach such high depths. As a result, at the time of the dive the lungs are collapsed, however, they have a large number of respiratory pigments in the blood and muscles able to redistribute oxygen in the body from the repeated and close breathing acts that they perform on the surface. This aspect is widely exploited in the field of research since, for example, according to the time of apnea you can guess the behavior and the activity carried out at that precise moment. It is therefore necessary to use a stopwatch to record the apnea times, the time of emergence, the number of breathing in the emersion phase, and the distance between one jet and another. Finally, an indispensable tool is a camera with a telephoto lens that allows to capture as much as possible individuals, even if far away, and photograph certain parts of the body that will be used in the process of reprocessing and recognition. Photo identification is one of the main components for cetacean research. In the case of the bottlenose dolphins, for example, every individual in the course of its existence accumulates a certain number of identifying signs deriving from clashes, bites and traumas of various kinds that translate into what are called "notches", or the missing parts on the fins. . In addition to the notches there may be several other signs such as scratches or depigmentations that help to outline a unique profile that can be distinguished from all the other archives of the different databases. In this way, putting together notches, scratches and depigmentations is as if they had their fingerprints and, comparing the images captured with others already present in different databases, it is possible to trace the individual.

Visited areas

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The first week of travel began with Marina di Campo, a small town in the southern part of the Island of Elba. The program of the first day was to arrive in an area to the west of the island of Montecristo along the island of Pianosa. The crossing would have been long and hot, so much to force us to eat while surfing in an attempt to reach the destination in sufficient time to leave us some free time before classes. After a few minutes from the start, a few miles from the coast, we immediately sighted a group of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), presumably females with little ones. Only later, thanks to the researchers of the center, we became aware of the fact that the sightings below the coast were particularly frequent in that period due to the presence of a large group of relatively fixed individuals in that area. After the first and voluminous sighting, we continued on the route to our destination. The precise point, in which we would arrive several hours later, corresponds to an islet completely offshore that takes the name of Africhella or Formica di Montecristo. Geologically it is an area in which, despite being in open water, the depth is greatly reduced up to a few meters. This phenomenon is due to the fact that the rock is located in correspondence of a marine backbone, the same that more to the north has generated the islands of Pianosa and Capraia. The fact that the bottom can be so close to the surface of the water, allows various activities such as snorkeling and diving excursions. Needless to say, we spent all our free time in the water with fins, mask and snorkel. During the exploration we were able to see the massive presence (in addition to sea urchins and numerous species of crustaceans and colorful fish) of sea hares, opistobranch molluscs belonging to the Aplysiidae family.


The reason why we could observe a high concentration of these specimens is that the reduced depth and the rocky bottom allow the growth of dense vegetation near the rocks consisting of green algae and marine phanerogams that are easily burned by these specimens. After spending 12 hours in wonderful isolation, the next morning we started traveling again, this time towards Isola del Giglio passing Montecristo. Despite the high depth promising possible sightings of Stenelle (Stenella ceruleoalba) and Capodogli (Physeter macrocephalus), halfway between the rock of Africa and the island of Montecristo, we made our second sighting of Tursiopi. Once the sighting was closed we resumed the journey and, after some meetings including several predatory fishes, fishing boats and a solitary pedal boat dispersed in the middle of the sea, we finally reached the gulf of Campese (Isola del Giglio) where we have spent our third night. The next day the goal was to reach a deep pit over 1000m that is located between the area south of the island of Giglio, between the last areas attributable to the Tuscan Archipelago, and Sardinia. Being a particularly deep area compared to the rest of the Archipelago, the possibility of sighting large cetaceans was very high. In fact, after a few minutes listening to the noises transmitted by the hydrophone (which we will explain, more in detail, in the paragraph dedicated to the instruments) we were able to recognize a series of frequencies attributable to a sperm whale. However, despite the excitement, the desire to see something new that had only been told by the members of the previous weeks and the silence not to lose even half a breath, unfortunately the haze and the distance did not allow us to grasp the surfacing of this colossus of the sea. Despite the lack (for very little) sighting, once again, we have had the opportunity to observe the behavior of three curious bottlenose dolphins who came very close to the boat. The fourth day was the time to return to the Island of Elba in Margidore, it was a quiet but very long crossing that forced us, once again, to eat at sea. That day, after not having seen anything during the whole trip, the sighting arrived while we were eating a few miles from the coast. The following two days were monitored on the Island of Elba, very close to the coast, moving from Margidore to Secchetto, for the last time we sighted some members of the group of tursiopi of the first day of monitoring, the next day we would have definitely reached Marina di Campo where we would have finished, very reluctantly, the first part of this wonderful experience.

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The second part of this experience took place in various areas of the Ligurian Sea, in the heart of the Pelagos Sanctuary, a vast marine protected area for whales and dolphins, classified as a Specially Protected Area of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMI). More precisely, the study area extends towards the sea from Sanremo, the boundaries are approximately Capo Mele on the Italian coast, Saint Raphael on the French coast and the northern part of the island of Corsica. The second week has given us some surprises regarding the sightings, after having had the opportunity to deepen during the first week all the aspects concerning the Tursiopi, we were lucky enough to spot three other species: the Stenella striata (Stenella ceruleoalba), Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and the Whale common (Balaenoptera physalus) that we have spotted three times, twice individuals and one in pairs.

"E il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare"...

That's right, there are emotions that are not easily forgotten and that we struggle to leave behind. After an experience of this kind you learn to look at everyday life differently, you learn to appreciate many things that, normally, we take for granted: electricity, fresh water, space and much more. We understand that, as much as we have been able to populate the earth, we can never do it with the sea, and it is understood when you take courage and throw yourself into the open sea, look down and see nothing, just see (or look for imagine) hundreds of meters of blue sea below you and the rays of light that penetrate you and you feel tremendously insignificant. On the boat you learn, with the passing of the days, that nothing that is in the sea will ever belong to you and, no matter how beautiful a shell or anything else that can be found there, will never be anything compared to the memory and the feelings you carry inside. And what about the pleasure of seeing the words "no service" on the phone? After all, all the important people for us knew that we were in the sea but safe, no one worried, how many times will we still be able to afford to lose contact with the world for so long without consequences? It is precisely when you are in these situations that the only thing you can do is look around, being in the middle of the sea you can appreciate the absence of noise and light pollution. Here is the darkness is really dark, the silence is really silence (except the waves that slide against the boat) and you realize how much light can make the stars. Several times we decided to sleep outside because it seemed a waste to sleep below deck and in this way we collected the most beautiful starry skies, the most beautiful sunrises and the most beautiful colors that will accompany us in the gray of the city during the year that awaits us.





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@spaghettiscience your post has been voted twice, let's try to be fair, can you please clearly state in the beginning of the post when it's a translation of a post that has been voted already? thanks


I'm sorry for the inconvenience @aboutcoolscience, but I also reported it on Discord immediately after posting... And honestly I thought it was pretty clear due to the title and the cover...

Next time I will report it better...


I know you mean well and that you warned me but there are several curators in steemstem and others were not aware that it was a translation and they voted your post before I had a chance to have a look


Ok, no problem... Next time I will highlight it better!