From Fellow to Field Assistant: An Earthwatch Volunteer Evolution

Last summer, Maria Rakka, Marine Biodiversity and Conservation master’s student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, joined the Earthwatch Dolphins of Greece program as a student fellow. As with all of our student fellows, Maria’s research contribution was sponsored by a generous donation.

As a result of achievements made by Maria’s team in successfully observing, photographing, and tagging, the dolphins, she was asked to return as a field assistant for the summer of 2013. I had the opportunity to chat with Maria about her past expedition experience and her evolution into one of the team’s leaders.

Maria Rakka conducting research on a boat in the Mediterranean

“My experience last summer on the Dolphins of Greece project was amazing,” Maria said. “I learned so much about the dolphin populations of my country, the risks and threats they face, and the methods used to study them.” Maria’s passion for conserving these dolphins was ignited by having daily interactions in their natural habitat during the expedition. “Getting so close to them every day was an unforgettable experience. Putting into practice everything I learned during my studies was very important, along with the new study approaches I learned, like photo-identification and behavior monitoring.”

Securing her spot as a research assistant on the Dolphins of Greece project was no easy task. Two years of Maria’s collegiate marine career focused on Environmental Biology, and during this time took scuba diving courses. On these dives, Maria’s passion for the underwater world sparked. “I had the opportunity to visit different dive spots in places all over the world. I went to the Azores Islands and the Caribbean Archipelago, trips that made me love the marine environment even more.” Maria went on to teach scuba diving during her Erasmus Studies (what they call internships in Greece) before teaming up with Earthwatch.

When the lead scientist on the project offered Maria the opportunity to return to Dolphins of Greece as a field assistant, she didn’t hesitate to accept. “I love the way the whole project is organized,” Maria said. “Especially the fact that it combines research, conservation and simultaneously works to raise awareness about environmental issues within the Amvrakikos Gulf community.” Maria added. “Joan Gonzalvo and Ioannis Giovos (the lead scientists on this expedition) give presentations on a spherical view of conservation of the marine environment which they show to volunteers through presentations, discussions, and movies which really help to illustrate how we are making an impact.”

The Dolphins of Greece expedition is part of the Ionian Dolphin Project of the Tethys Research Institute, and has monitored dolphins in the Inner Ionian Archipelago and in the Amvrakikos Gulf in Western Greece for the last 20 years. Information about the dolphin population, their behavior, feeding habits, and interaction with other species and with local fisheries is being recorded daily. This data is crucial for managing fisheries and protecting the dolphin populations in the area.

Volunteers get up close and personal with a jumping dolphin. c. Tethys Research Institute

Volunteers get up close and personal with a jumping dolphin. c. Tethys Research Institute

“The data collected by this project has allowed the researchers to prove there is a dramatic decline on the population of endangered short-beaked common dolphins.” Maria explained the direct effect this project is having on the dolphins, “the decline has been linked to the unsustainability of local fisheries, and a result, has led to the collapse of fish-stocks that the dolphins rely on for food.”

While research conducted since 2001 shows the Amvrakikos Gulf hosts one of the highest populations of bottlenose dolphins ever reported in the Mediterranean, these dolphins still face concerns. “High human impact is an issue in the gulf, and poses a great risk to their survival,” Maria said. As a result of these findings, the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS (Agreement for the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area) has recommended each one of the study areas be classified as an MPA (Marine Protected Area), restricting human activity in the interest of conserving the gulf’s natural environment.

Participating first hand in making positive changes for these dolphins continues to ignite Maria’s passion for conserving marine life in Greece, and throughout the world. “The opportunity to participate on the Dolphins of Greece expedition as a researcher is very important for me, I am able to hone my skills and gain knowledge that will help me with my future career. Eventually, when I get to the appropriate stage of confidence with knowledge, background, and experience level, I would love to become a lead scientist on a program, maybe even for Earthwatch.”

“The staff and other volunteers created such a friendly and relaxed environment,” Maria said about getting back into the field, “and the site where we stay is beautiful. It’s a small town with friendly people and wonderful scenery. The waters of the Gulf are usually calm and reflect the mountains surrounding the bay to create amazing sunsets. In the afternoons, we would all go for walks on a small island near the site.”

Island near site

Island near the site in the Amvrakikos Gulf c: Maria Rakka

“One of my favorite moments from our trip last year… We tried to cook a traditional Greek dish called mousakas. I had to call my mom and get a handful of tips and after two hours in the kitchen, we were all so hungry that we completely burned our tongues! It was one of the best dinners we had during the program. I had the opportunity to meet incredible people from all over the world. Everyone was self-motivated, collaborative and helpful which in turn, created a beautiful environment.”

Inspired by all of the work being done for these dolphins in the Mediterranean? Visit the Earthwatch website and sign up to join Maria on Dolphins of Greece project this summer.