by Anaïs Rémili
It was my first field internship, in the summer of 2016. Unlike my university friends, who were celebrating their graduation, I decided to spend the summer working on whales and dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea.
Searching for whales is difficult. My eyes suffered a lot that summer. The water reflects the light of the sun on the surface. Once you spot a whale or a dolphin, it often directly dives and vanishes forever. If you encounter a sperm whale or a Cuvier’s beaked whale, it could go for a deep dive and only resurface an hour later! There is a lot of patience involved in this type of research. However, I will never regret my long hours at sea that summer. I was lucky to meet some of the most magnificent animals on Earth.
The stripped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) can be found in most Oceans. In the Mediterranean Sea, they live in pods and travel along the coast looking for cephalopods to feed on. They can perform acrobatics and are quite agile!
During my time in Italy, I encountered several pods of stripped dolphins. They were a lot of fun because they can be quite friendly and playful. The juvenile in the picture above was one of the most gorgeous dolphins I saw this summer.
The fin whale (Balenoptera physalus) is the second largest mammal on the planet. It can reach twenty-seven meters although its size usually oscillates between eighteen and twenty meters. It was hunted heavily before commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission. This beautiful whale is one of the eight species of marine mammals protected in the Pelagos Sanctuary between Northern Italy and Corsica. It feeds on small fish, squid, and krill.
We were told that fin whale sightings were rare, and it was the first sighting of the season. It was not hard to spot because of the shape and size of their blow – it was so close that I felt its blow! It was a surreal encounter.
Finally, the Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) is definitely the most elusive whale in the Pelagos Sanctuary. They can dive as deep as 3000m and hold their breath for up to two hours! They like to feed on squid. They are particularly sensitive to noise and military sonar because it confuses them and can even be lethal to them as they can get decompression sickness such as gas embolism.
I had the chance to spot a family of Ziphius, including a calf. That day was one of the hardest days that summer at sea, because we were barely able to get a glimpse of the whales, but this magical encounter with the calf made it all worthwhile. We had to be on the lookout for any sign of their presence, which is difficult to do since their blow is not visible like that of the fin whale.
I will forever miss the beautiful creatures of the Pelagos Sanctuary. They made me want to study the impact of pollution on marine mammals and I would not be where I am today without this internship. Today, I study chemical pollution in killer whales from the North Atlantic for my PhD. I do not travel much to Italy these days. But I know I will go back, one day …
Anaïs Remili is a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University, under the supervision of Dr. Melissa McKinney. She works on killer whale feeding ecology and ecotoxicology. She has always had a passion for marine mammals. She received her M.Sc. In Marine environment and resources from the Marine Environment and Resources consortium, an Erasmus Mundus + Master Program in Europe; and her B.Sc. In Biology of the Organisms and Populations from the University Claude Bernard of Lyon in France.