Marine mammals under threat

Some of the world’s rarest marine mammals live in Greek waters, a widely known fact that many have not quite grasped the significance of. Greece’s seas boast wonderful species, from the common dolphin and the Mediterranean monk seal, to the fin whale and the beaked whale, both little-known creatures that are rarely sighted. The beaked whale can reach a length of 20 meters and there have been a few sightings in the Ionian Sea and in the area south of Crete, while dolphins and seals are normally encountered in sheltered gulfs such as the Amvrakikos or the Gulf of Corinth. Scientists recently spotted three different dolphin species in one pod, leading to interesting evolutionary theories.

These mammals all have a valuable role to play in maintaining the balance and abundance of the ecosystem, yet they face numerous serious threats, all deriving from human activity. Whales being hit by ships along the increasingly busy sea routes of the Ionian and Aegean or being disoriented by sonar used by navy ships (sometimes resulting in serious injury or even death); dolphins choking to death after swallowing plastic bags; seals being injured by boat propellers or killed by illegal fishing with dynamite – these are but some of the crimes that have been recorded against Greece’s sea mammals.

The fact is that the idyllic depictions of these animals swimming in the Greek seas may do much to boost the country’s image as a tourism destination, but the real picture behind the scenes is a horror story for the marine mammals themselves.

“Several beaked whales washed up on the coasts of the Ionian islands and in Italy in November 2011,” said Vangelis Paravas, a biologist with MOm, a nonprofit group protecting the habitat of the Mediterranean monk seal, and with the EU-backed Thalassa awareness campaign for the protection of the Greek seas. “We later found out that the Italian navy had been conducting exercises in the area using active sonar. Overfishing of the country’s waters has also contributed to shortages in food sources for large marine mammals that feed on shrimp, squid etc. Meanwhile, ship traffic creates noise that disorients whales that sonar to navigate, leading to frequent collisions. Their condition is very complicated and fragile.”

The common dolphin, for example, is common in name only, as just 15 individuals are believed to still exist in the Ionian Sea, while the whale population is also dwindling, Paravas explained.

“What we need is awareness, education and supervision in order to protect populations that are in danger of extinction,” the expert added.

Four nongovernmental organizations – WWF Hellas, MOm, Pelagos and Thetis – have recently joined forces to this end, within the framework of the European Union-funded Life program. The NGOs are working closely with local authorities and communities in parts of the country that are most affected.

“The coast guard has been especially helpful, but we need a nationwide action plan that will address the factors that put the animals at risk,” said Giorgos Paximadis of WWF Hellas.