National Geographic Today
The research vessel, a century-old 60-foot gaff-rigged ketch, looks more like it belongs to Barbary pirates than to contemporary scientists.
But Ana Canadas and Ricardo Sagarminaga, a Spanish husband-and-wife team of marine biologists, refitted the Norwegian fishing vessel Toftevaag to study dolphins, porpoises and whales in the Alboran Sea, the western portion of the Mediterranean between Spain and Morocco.
The Alboran plays a crucial role for dolphin and man. Every year, 20 percent of the world's maritime traffic passes through the Alboranwhich also happens to be what the researchers call "a regeneration zone" for Mediterranean marine life.
Canadas and Sagarminaga, based at the University of Madrid, want to know how the cetaceans are faring in this heavily trafficked but biodiversity-rich region of the Mediterranean.
"The distribution of dolphin populations in the Mediterranean is really a reflection of the state of the health of the Mediterranean Sea," said Sagarminaga, conservation program coordinator for the Spanish Cetacean Society and skipper of the Toftevaag.
In the Alboran, bottlenose dolphins travel in pods of about 33 creatures, but which sometimes swell to more than 100, Sagarminaga says. However, in the eastern Mediterranean, east of Sicily, pods average only about eight dolphins.
Sagarminaga and Canadas, a doctoral candidate, hope that their research will help persuade the Spanish government to create a so-called Marine Protected Area in the northern Alboran.
Investigating a Massive Dolphin Die-Off
Such a designation would regulate commercial traffic, fishing and tourism. Also, an MPA, Canadas expects, would help the flourishing marine mammal populations "spill over and repopulate eastern regions of the (Mediterranean) sea."
Canadas and Sagarminaga have been collecting data in the Alboran since 1990in effect, taking a dolphin census. The couple and many other marine biologists believe that cetacean numbers have fallen in the last decade, but the problem has been proving their hunch. There is a tremendous lack of historical data.
"Whether the populations have definitely declined or just redistributed is difficult to determine," said Philip Hammond, a marine mammal population ecologist at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, who is one of Canadas' doctoral advisers. "If anyone's data will help answer this question, it will probably be Ana's."
About four years ago Canadas realized the value of her data and wanted to subject it to more thorough analysis; In about 2000 that she began her PhD work.
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