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Diving into the world of Greece's native sperm whales

By Yiannis Palaiologos

The underground space of the Hub venue in the central Athenian neighborhood of Kato Petralona was packed with people. But they weren’t there for a fancy charity event or some conference about entrepreneurship – popular events these days. Rather, they were there to listen to Dr Alexandros Frantzis, a biological oceanographer and founder and scientific director of the Pelagos Institute for Cetacean Research. The subject of his presentation was the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), a subject he knows well having studied their presence in Greek waters systematically for the past 15 years.

Franztis, who has a contagious love for sperm whales and all cetaceans, transported his audience back to the summer of 1998, when what he calls a “conspiracy of nature,” found him off the southwestern coast of Crete on a research vessel equipped with his first hydrophone – an underwater microphone that records the sounds of the deep.

“I suddenly heard these sounds through the hydrophone,” said Frantzis. He played a tape of clicking sounds that instantly struck a chord with those members of the audience who knew what they were listening to, mainly people who had volunteered with the institute for its programs on Crete, in the Peloponnese, the southern Ionian and the Gulf of Corinth. The clicks were the sounds of the sperm whales’ own sound navigation system, which they use to make their way around the deep and search for food.

“It seems unreal. It’s difficult to convey the feeling right now, but it’s kind of like leaving this room and running into a dinosaur,” said Frantzis, sending a wave of laughter through the audience. As his research continued, the scientists made another startling discovery: that in contrast to regular nomadic sperm whale populations around the rest of the world, Greece’s population of some 200 individuals, and especially the females, stayed put.

The experience of an eco-volunteer, who, like literature’s Captain Ahab (though with no predatory instincts), watches the endless sea for signs of a whale expelling air through its blowhole as it comes up for air, is almost impossible to describe in words. The speaker, however, wanted to describe to the audience what makes this particular marine mammal such a fascinating subject of study.

He explained, for example, how the sperm whale is one of the “most talkative” marine animals, has the biggest brain and is the best diver. Indeed, it can dive to a depth of 2,000 meters, a completely inhospitable environment, on one breath, and remain there for as long as two hours.

Frantzis also described the whales’ social structures and how there is a sense of solidarity between different families, or pods, which consist of females (the males are solitary), and especially when it comes to caring for the young.

Despite a global ban on whaling, the sperm whale has been described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a “vulnerable” species. Frantzis added that unless measures are implemented soon to protect them, the whales may disappear altogether from the Eastern Mediterranean.

“Sixty-one percent of sperm whales that wash up dead on Greek beaches bear injuries from propellers of large ships,” said Frantzis, adding that sound pollution constitutes another serious threat to the local population.

“There is the dynamite used [illegally] by fishermen, military exercises using sonar and hydrocarbon exploration,” he said.

Last but not least is the bane of plastic, significant quantities of which end up in the sea and subsequently in the stomachs of marine mammals. According to Frantzis, 50 percent of the dead sperm whales that have been studied at the Pelagos Institute have plastic in their stomachs.

While the scientist concedes that these adverse factors cannot be eradicated, he hopes that acquainting the public with these wonderful creatures will raise awareness and motivate people to join campaigns for their protection. Pelagos’s volunteer programs this year begin in July. To find our more, log on to www.pelagosinstitute.gr.

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