The Aegean Marine Life Sanctuary is a pioneering initiative which is expected to serve multiple important functions on the eastern Aegean island of Leipsi. From treatment for sick and injured sea creatures to advanced scientific and environmental research, the sanctuary will also apply best practices in order to minimize its environmental footprint.
The project is the work of the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation – in partnership with a number of universities abroad, as well as the Leipsoi municipal authority – and a dolphin rehabilitation area is currently in the making in the Bay of Vroulia. Apart from caring for injured dolphins, it will also take in animals released from European dolphinariums.
“We’ll be able to offer long-term accommodation and treatment for dolphins in a natural environment. There is nothing like it in Europe – not even the world. It will be a standard-bearer. It took us five years to find the perfect spot,” says Archipelagos director Thodoris Tsimbidis.
The sanctuary will also take in seals, turtles and other marine animals that are injured, sick or otherwise in need of care. “It will have a veterinary clinic for covering the care of most of the [animals in] the Aegean Sea and will apply the strictest and most advanced protocols for animal care,” stresses Anastasia Miliou, the institute’s head of research.
The hydrobiologist notes the importance of rehabilitation in a natural environment with real, living flora and fauna, which Archipelagos intends to enrich over time. “We will be introducing specially selected young and adult fish and invertebrates, experimenting with planting sensitive Posidonia oceanica seagrass and creating small artificial reefs,” she adds of the plans to cultivate the bay.
The dolphins, moreover, will be fed live fish from a farm off Leros instead of frozen fish, which is usually the case, in order to help them develop or maintain their natural hunting instincts and skills.
The enclosure will be used to host just six dolphins at first, and those that have been kept in captivity will be separated from the injured ones. The plan is to have the sanctuary up and running by next year, though there is still quite a bit to be done in terms of construction and permits. Its creators also envision something more than a shelter.
“We are hoping to create a center for innovative marine research, in cooperation with universities abroad. We are planning a number of projects beyond studies on dolphins, such as research on how seagrass meadows can help reverse the effects of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide,” says Miliou, adding that special cameras and microphones will also be placed in the dolphin pool to record their vocalizations and interactions.
The lockdown in March and April served as a good opportunity for a team of 26 people to get the digital infrastructure up and running so that the sounds and images from the pool can be broadcast anywhere in the world.
“We have no intention of making the dolphins a tourist attraction,” stresses Miliou. “Visits will be very limited and by invitation only so that we do not disturb the dolphins. Scientists and students in related fields will have priority.”
Leipsi Mayor Fotis Mangos is excited about the project. “The municipal authority and the local community support the sanctuary and are working with the people behind it. We believe that it will have a positive impact on our small island, by attracting interest, creating jobs and protecting its natural environment,” he says.
Before the advent of Archipelagos, Vroulia was a wild patch of land that had no access to electricity, water or telephone networks. But what may have seemed like a disadvantage at first, ended up working in favor of the institute’s eco-friendly philosophy.
“We turned the problem to our advantage. We do not have, nor will we ever have, light or noise pollution,” explains Tsimbidis. “We wanted every one of our interventions to work toward the sanctuary’s holistic and autonomous operation. There’s no point in saving dolphins to the detriment of the environment. Therefore, power comes from photovoltaic panels on the roof and we have two generators that run on biodiesel produced locally and which we will only use in absolute emergencies. We collect rainwater and dew and treat it so it’s safe to drink, and we have also sunk a well and are working on a small desalination unit to clean its water. We even repaired an old rain collection tank we found here from the 1960s,” he says.