"The Sperm Whales of Greece - Life in the Trenches" is the second part of a the five-part documentary series "Whales of the Mediterranean Sea" about the scientists exploring the Mediterranean, and the cetaceans that inhabit this ancient sea.. http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1315793482http://www.brightcove.com/channel.jsp?channel=717691041

 






Whales of the Mediterranean Sea - Part 2     
    The Sperm Whales of Greece - "Life in the Trenches"

    17minutes, 21 seconds   Flash Video

>> Watch a QUICKTIME Version of "The Sperm Whales of Greece"
>> Part 1 - "Mediterranean - The Sea in the Middle of the Earth"
>> Part 3 - "Fishy Business - The Illegal Driftnet Fishery"

"The Sperm Whales of Greece - Life in the Trenches" is the second part of a the five-part documentary series "Whales of the Mediterranean Sea" about the scientists exploring the Mediterranean, and the cetaceans that inhabit this ancient sea..

"Life in the Trenches" documents a scientific expedition through Greece in search of the elusive and endangered Mediterranean Sperm Whale. We join Dr. Alexandros Frantzis of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, onboard the R/V Nereis on a journey into the deepest trenches of the Mediterranean.

In the Ionian Sea, we discover a socializing sperm whale family, and study their behavior as they welcome a newborn calf into the group. However, the future for this calf, and its family is uncertain. As their habitat deteriorates due to human pressures, what does the future hold for the most social of the great whales?

       Map - The Trackline of the Expedition: July-August 2007, Greece.

Transcript - The Sperm Whales of Greece - A Life in the Trenches

Narrated by Genevieve Johnson - earthOCEAN

Sperm whales are found throughout the world's oceans, but most people have no idea there is a resident population right here in the Mediterranean Sea.

Females and young animals reside year round in tropical and temperate waters. Mature males frequent the higher, colder latitudes, seasonally returning to warmer waters, to mate with females. Sperm whales in the Mediterranean Sea are different. They are a genetically distinct sub-population.

Social groups, calves, young males and adult males all appear to remain in this semi-enclosed sea their entire lives; the only place in the world this happens.

To gain a glimpse into the mysterious world of Mediterranean sperm whales, we traveled to Athens, Greece to meet Alexandros Frantzis of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute.

Alexandros has dedicated his life to studying sperm whales in Greece, advancing our understanding of the most social of the great whales while working tirelessly for their conservation.

Our expedition began where we joined Alexandros and his team onboard the Pelagos research vessel, Nereis. Heading south into the Aegean, we passed the Temple of Poseidon - the ancient Greek god of the seas.

We traveled through the Corinth Canal, a man-made shipping route connecting the Aegean Sea to the Gulf of Corinth. This 130-kilometer long Gulf stretches to the Ionian Sea. Its calm, blue waters are one of the best places to sight dolphins.

A unique phenomenon occurs here. Striped dolphins, short-beaked common dolphins and Risso's dolphins are regularly observed swimming together in the Gulf. Permanent associations between these species are not known to occur anywhere else.

After four days, we finally entered the deep waters of the Ionian Sea, and the Port of Keri on the Island of Zakynthos.

Sperm whales are usually found in deep waters far offshore. In the Ionian Sea, deep water is close to the coast. In this area, sperm whales regularly dive over 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) in their quest for food. Dives usually last about 45 minutes, while the largest males are capable of holding their breath for up to two hours.

They have the largest nose in the animal kingdom, which may account for one-third of their body length. Its purpose is to generate sound. It is made up primarily of the spermaceti organ, an oil filled cask, which is specialized as the world's largest, biological sound producer. They echolocate using sound as a way to see in deep water where light doesn't penetrate. They emit powerful, regular echolocation clicks almost continuously while diving, in order to find their prey, and to navigate the deep trenches.

Alexandros Frantzis, PhD. - Scientific Director Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, Greece.

"It would be impossible to find sperm whales without using acoustic methods. But probably in all the Mediterranean, there are no places where the sperm whales are so abundant that you can go out with a visual survey and just observe them with binoculars. We need to use acoustics, which means a hydrophone to listen for their clicks and wait for them to appear at the surface."

We left port at dawn in search of sperm whales. Alexandros has a good idea where we may find them. The crew deployed an underwater microphone called a hydrophone that is towed on a 100-meter long cable behind the research vessel.

After almost a week of traveling, we heard the first faint clicks on the hydrophone, and then we spotted the first blow. At last, we were going to meet the sperm whales of the Mediterranean. The clicks were from a large group, but these were not regular, echolocation clicks. These were distinct patterns of clicks called ‘codas'. Codas are an intriguing form of communication, like a type of conversation that sounds like Morse code.

Alexandros Frantzis, PhD.

"Sperm whales are social animals and within the framework of their social units they have developed their own culture. Their culture concerns knowledge about feeding grounds, navigation, hierarchy and social cohesion of the group. The use of their echolocation system that has to be taught from one generation to the other, and above all, the way to communicate acoustically."

We approached the socializing group gathered at the surface. It is was a family Alexandros instantly recognized. He identifies individual whales by taking digital photographs of them.

Alexandros Frantzis, PhD.

"In order to recognize and photo identify individual sperm whales, we use any particular characteristics that they may have. These are found mainly on the dorsal and ventral part of their flukes and mainly on the trailing edge of the flukes, or at the right or left side of the dorsal fin area."

Photo identification is a benign research technique used by cetacean researchers worldwide. Alexandros has an extensive catalogue containing images of 160 individual whales.

Alexandros Frantzis, PhD.

"Through photo identification we can estimate the abundance of the whales, we can study their movement, and we can study their social structure. We have a social unit here right now, there are two calves, two juveniles and some adults and some immature individuals. This is the social unit; the mature females are the leaders of the social unit."

A central feature of sperm whale societies is the strongly bonded family.

Alexandros Frantzis, PhD.

"Social units are matrilineal, that means that the female sperm whales that are born in a social unit, they have a very high probability to stay in the same social unit, in their family actually, for all their lives. The situation is different for males. Male sperm whales when they become mature, they leave the social unit and they go away."

We suddenly noticed a tiny nose rising among the giants, there was a new addition to the family.

Alexandros Frantzis, PhD.

"This group is a group that we met last year and they have a newborn with them."

At less than four meters long, this one-ton baby was perhaps twenty-four hours old. Alexandros named it "Keraki" - meaning "small candle" in Greek. For the research team, every birth is a small light, and a hope that sperm whales can survive in the Mediterranean.

Calves can't follow their mothers on deep dives. Keraki was often left at the surface with a babysitter when his mother and the rest of the group coordinated a feeding dive. The newborn kept track of her by listening for her echolocation clicks from the surface. When she returned, the calf was hungry and eager to nurse.

Nursing in sperm whales is poorly understood, so we decided to stay with the family for a few days in the hopes of observing this behavior. Alexandros and Chris slowly slipped into the water and joined the group beneath the waves. Moving towards its mother, they filmed what appeared to be Keraki attempting to nurse.

The expedition continued further south along the Hellenic trench. The Hellenic trench is a narrow, steep depression in the sea floor that runs parallel to the western and southern coasts of Greece.

We are drifting above the Hellenic trench. This is the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea and perfect habitat for sperm whales. We've got a group of fourteen animals of the bow right now.

According to Alexandros, this 600-kilometer long trench is home to 20 families, comprising an estimated 180 sperm whales. This probably constitutes the highest density of sperm whales throughout the entire Mediterranean.

Occasionally we came into port for the night. The coast is dotted with natural harbors and tiny villages, where traditional fishing boats and striking white washed buildings hug the shoreline.

We headed out to sea from Loutro on a beautiful calm morning. We followed the trench as it wrapped around the southern coast of the island of Crete. Despite the numbers of animals we have seen on this expedition, sperm whale ecology in the Mediterranean is still poorly understood. After years of research, Alexandros and his team are only beginning to understand these animals.

But, time may be running out...

Alexandros Frantzis, PhD.

"People in Greece that didn't know that sperm whales occur in our waters may think these are many animals, but biologically speaking this is nothing. These are too few animals and so small population unit that it may disappear, even from natural causes, just like this. Now imagine that these whales are facing many serious threats."

With few natural predators, their greatest threat comes from human pressures.

Alexandros Frantzis, PhD.

"It was one of the tragic examples of pollution with plastic debris. Last year we found a very young sperm whale, 2.5 years old in the famous Mykonos Island. When we opened the stomach little by little, we discovered it was plenty of plastic bags, and many other kinds of plastic debris that were compacted like stones. We found at least one hundred plastic bags, or pieces of nets, any kind of plastic bag for potatoes, for chips, for chocolates, from the supermarket, whatever. All our civilization was in the stomach of this sperm whale."

Thirty percent of the world's shipping traffic occurs in the Mediterranean Sea. In Greek waters, ships often hit whales.

Alexandros Frantzis, PhD.

"The Mediterranean suffers the heaviest maritime traffic than any other sea on the globe. About two hundred and twenty thousand vessels are crossing the Mediterranean every year."

With more boat traffic, there is more noise underwater. Sperm whales use sound to navigate, communicate and find they their prey. Scientists are concerned these abilities may be significantly reduced, masked by growing noise pollution.

Alexandros Frantzis, PhD.

"This is amazing. I think there is no silent places any more, anywhere in the Mediterranean for cetaceans that have to hear all this noise twenty-four hours per day."

By far, the most significant threat to Mediterranean sperm whales is the illegal driftnet fishery. In the past three decades, 229 animals were entangled and killed in driftnets. They swim into drifting nets they cannot see, their bodies become so wrapped up in this monofilament web that they drown.

Alexandros Frantzis, PhD.

"Our feeling is that if nothing changes regarding the threats, no protection measures are taken for the Mediterranean sperm whales, during the next decades, the level of the population will fall below a number that will guarantee its survival."
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