In June 2015 I joined the Ionian Dolphin Project (IDP) run by the Tethys Research Institute for a week. This is a long-term research project on the bottlenose dolphins in the Ambravikos Gulf and other dolphins and marine mammals in the waters around Kalamos.
(All photos by Joan Gonzalves of the IDP)
Location: Vonitsa, a small town on the coast of the Ambravikos Gulf in mainland Greece
Duration: 1 week
Cost: I paid a student rate of €650, which is only available in early and late season. Otherwise the cost is €720 for non-students in early/late season and €750 for everyone in high season.
For me this project was tied into a month travelling around Greece and generally having fun, so I’d already been in the country for two weeks by the time I started. You have to navigate your own way to Vonitsa, which I did by bus. Athens bus station at 6am was pretty confusing to navigate but thankfully by then I was a more experienced traveller than on my adventures in Mexico three years before!
The IDP is a genuinely valuable and hard working research project. I enjoyed the six days I spent there immensely and learned a lot.
While I was there the project was run by a Catelonian researcher called Joan Gonzalvo. I wouldn’t necessarily credit his customer service skills and the way he treated his research assistant was at times frankly terrifying, but he was extremely skilled and knowledgeable, which is by far the most important part. Once I got used to his mannerisms I also found him very funny.
Mornings were spent out on the project’s RIB, following one dolphin group for about two hours. In the Gulf, dolphins are not just likely but a virtual guarantee (bottlenoses). It never took long to find the day’s study group. We then followed at a respectable distance, shouting when individuals surfaced with their location and approximate distance, and recording data such as behaviours, direction, etc. While we did this, Joan was taking photos, doing his best to capture all sides of every dolphin, in particular their dorsal fins.
This routine was slightly broken up only on days when we had to do a fish farm survey, recording dolphin activity specifically in these areas, and the one day we went out to the waters around Kalamos island, which doesn’t have quite the same density of dolphin populations. Here is where you are more likely to encounter common dolphins (now, sadly, a misnomer in the Med) but we actually still found a group of bottlenoses and this turned out to be one of our better days of dolphin spotting.
After the morning survey there would be lunch and a couple of hours to wind down, get a drink in town, etc. before spending the afternoon photo IDing. We would match the photos to the IDP’s catalogue of known individuals in the Gulf (which is the whole population, I believe).
The flat you stay in on the project is lovely – loads of space and very clean and well kept. Bedding is in bunk beds in a screened off area of the main living/study area. There were separate bedrooms for Joan and his research assistant, an open plan kitchen-diner, and a balcony for hanging up washing (hand wash only).
Cooking was supposedly on a rota system, but as there were only three volunteers including myself in the week I was there, we all decided to cook together. This felt like much less pressure! We decided what to cook in the mornings and let Joan know so that food could be bought in the afternoon break.
Vonitsa doesn’t really have that much going on – it’s not a tourist town, which is nice in its own way. The whole Gulf area doesn’t seem to have attracted too many of the vast swathes of tourists who (quite understandably) head to Greece every summer, probably because its beaches are not so picturesque and the water really quite murky. You start to see this as a blessing when you realise it’s what has allowed the bottlenose dolphin population there to thrive in peace. I was still surprised it hasn’t become a massive dolphin watching area (one small local eco-tourism boat runs) and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time, which is why the project is focussed on getting legal protection for the Gulf dolphins before that day arrives.
As I was only here for a week (6 working days), I didn’t really experience time off in the area. A few mornings I got up early to go for a short run before the boat survey. In the 2-3 hour break during the day we would go get an ice cream or a drink, or I would relax in the flat and read a book. I don’t think I ever actually swam in the sea in Vonitsa, but the other girls did (I was lucky to have just had two weeks in the islands, and another week still to go!).
The project isn’t a cheap one – I’d have loved to stay longer than one week but it was financially prohibitive. That said, I could definitely see where the money was going in terms of nice accommodation, a vehicle, a nice boat, etc. and could see what good the project was doing and how. I really felt part of what was going on and like I was being beneficial to the project in more ways than just paying. If you’re in the area and can afford it, I would definitely recommend it. I would also recommend doing what I did and tying it into other travels around Greece – but that’s just a personal bias.
Also, if you have more experience, you could apply to research assistant roles with the Tethys Research Institute, both on the IDP and their other project, the Cetacean Sanctuary Project in the Ligurian Sea (where you can also volunteer, and live on a boat!).
I was very impressed by how professionally everything at the IDP was run, and in just one week felt I gained a lot of skills and valuable experience.