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Adrift at Sea

Imagine yourself cozy in your bed, lost in a dream, when suddenly the engine 20 feet from your head roars to life and sets your heart racing! The eight other people in the room look as shocked as you, but not the captain of the boat. He smiles, seeming to enjoy waking you all up in this sudden way. Kiss those dreams goodbye because you have ten minutes to get dressed and be at your post on deck. A day patrolling for dolphins, whales, and sea turtles is about to begin. You're on the good boat Toftevaag, built in 1910 in Norway for fishing, but now converted into a fully-equipped marine research station. On the boat are tools to measure the salinity, temperature, and oxygen levels in the water, a Global Positioning System, digital video cameras, cell phones and Internet access. Another cool instrument on board is called a hydrophone that drags in the water behind the boat at the end of a cable 100 meters (328 feet) long. This instrument allows you to listen and record the sounds.

For more information on Global Positioning Systems, visit the following web sites:

USCG Navigation Center GPS Page

Global Positioning System

Global Positioning Services Brochure

For years the two leaders on the boat, Ana Cañadas and Ricardo Sagarminaga van Buiten, both from Spain, have been leading volunteer groups from all over the world. During their week-long stay on the Toftevaag volunteers help Ana and Ricardo conduct research on dolphins and whales. As a volunteer, you are able to help with all sorts of things: you spend time in the mast with binoculars looking for the splashes and fins of playful dolphins and surfaced whales, you help navigate the boat and record data on your position and the sea conditions, listen to the hydrophone, and serve on galley crew (otherwise known as cooking).

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The Toftevaag - with the bagpipe-playing Nano Antonio showing his stuff in the zodiak boat
The volunteers on the Toftevaag are everyday people from all over the world who sign up (and pay money) to help support Ana and Ricardo's research through a program called Earthwatch. Through Earthwatch people can support and participate in scientific programs the world over. When they work with Ana and Ricardo, they get an opportunity to experience life on a research boat and to see dolphins and whales close up. Every day the boat goes out, at least one grouping of these amazing creatures is spotted. Sometimes it seems the entire day is spent going from one group to another. If the boat happens upon a place where many groups of dolphins have come together, hundreds of them can be seen jumping and playing. They love to "bow ride," swimming just in front of the boat and racing it, sometimes jumping high into the air ahead of it. On a lucky day, the boat will find a big whale, like a fin whale or sperm whale. Witnessing a breach is very exciting. A breach is when the whale shoots up into the air, sometimes almost getting its whole body into the air before it comes crashing back down into the water. Even on days when there aren't many dolphins, you almost always get to see flying fish. These fish have specially adapted fins that act like wings, allowing them to fly low over the water for over 100 feet sometimes! The plankton here are also sensitive to motion, and light up whenever something moves by them. At night you can see their glow behind where the boat passes. Sometimes they light up so bright it looks like a spark going off. There is so much beauty and life out at Sea.

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Ana and Ricardo operate their boat in one of the most important regions of the Mediterranean, the Alboran Sea, which we just crossed through on the ferry between Morocco and Spain. It's called the "hydrological engine" of the Mediterranean because it is where the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea meet. Because the Mediterranean, although huge, is so much smaller than the Atlantic it is warmer and has a much higher rate of evaporation, which makes it much saltier. This also causes water to be constantly flowing into the Mediterranean. In fact, the waters of the Mediterranean are completely replaced every 100 years. The incoming water creates currents along the bottom of the Sea which lift up rich nutrients into the water, meaning the area can support more life. In many places around the world, dolphin and whale populations are declining. This is true of the Alboran Sea. Ana and Ricardo are trying to document how many dolphins and whales remain in the area and what factors are affecting their survival. For more information on marine research go to ALNITAK - Marine Environment Research and Education Center.

Vocabulary box

serenade - play music in the open air at night
patrolling - passing along to check on something
salinity- salt content
hydrophone - underwater microphone
nutrients - nourishing substances

Some of the obvious impacts include massive waste disposal into rivers that empty into the Mediterranean, as seen in countries such as Italy. Massive over-fishing throughout the Sea and runoff of pesticides are other factors with an obvious impact on the whale and dolphin populations. Further, while oil tanker spills often make the news, a problem less publicized is the process of tank cleaning. The regular cleaning of the tanks require dumping oil into the water. Ana and Ricardo hope that through their efforts laws will be passed regulating traffic and fishing in the area, and that a specially protected area will be declared along the coast of the Alboran Sea.

Hopefully the information Ana, Ricardo and the many volunteers gather about life in the Alboran Sea will make people more sympathetic to the special creatures that live here. Maybe one of these days people will take action to protect this important area, both for the sakes of the creatures, as well as you and your kids so you can continue to appreciate the beauty of these creatures. Taking part in such an important cause has been well worth it.

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Three Pilot Whales
So while being woken up early in the morning by the loud roar of the boat's engine may not be the most pleasant of experiences, it's hard to complain about a day full of dolphins, whales and flying fish. And the sound of the engine is long forgotten when welcoming the night with a dinner beneath the stars, surrounded by the glowing plankton below, and the sound of bagpipes as Nano, one of the boat's assistants, serenades us back to the world of slumber and dreams... until a new day begins again.


Abeja - Coffee Talk in Shimmering BaGarcelona (Barcelona)
Jasmine - The Odyssey Discovers a New World
Making a Difference - We Still Need to Save the Whales

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