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A sperm whale 'breaching'.
Photo : Chris Johnson

August 2, 2004
Sperm Whales off Southwest Crete
Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Greece.

Late yesterday afternoon, we sighted our first Mediterranean sperm whales off the west coast of the Greek Island of Crete. In near perfect sea conditions, we tracked the group for almost forty minutes until the cessation of regular echolocation clicks through the acoustic array signaled the beginning of their ascent - the crew was instantly aloft. Our first two sightings were a rare treat; both were of mother/calf pairs.

We are joined this research leg by Dr. Alexandros Frantzis - Scientific Research Director of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute (PCRI) based in Vouliagmeni, Athens and his colleague Voula Alexiadou who is working on sperm whale communication. PCRI is a scientific non-profit organization whose goal is the study and conservation of cetaceans in Greece and the Mediterranean Sea. Among their notable achievements to date is the discovery of the presence of a sperm whale population in Greece. PCRI have studied the sperm whales around Crete for the past 9 years with preparation and research beginning in 1995 and field surveys in 1998. The first exploratory expedition took place in southwest Crete, with the researchers soon finding sperm whales occurring along the Hellenic Trench and the Aegean Sea. The presence of whales over an unexpectedly wide area resulted in the founding of the 'Greek Sperm Whale Program' - now the principle program of the PCRI.

There are few studies of living sperm whale societies that develop into long-term, sustainable research projects of individually identifiable animals. The work of PCRI is one such rare project. So far, Frantzis and his team have identified more than 100 individual animals from 13 social units. It is interesting to note that apart from the animals identified by PCRI, only around 100 other sperm whales are identifiable in the entire western Mediterranean, while apart from Greece virtually nothing is known of this species in the east.

A mother with a deformed sperm whale calf. Dr. Frantzis was very excited to see this animal survived since first sighting it last year.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Frantzis and his research team noted that most of the animals in Greek waters have white patches or spots on their body that vary from a few scattered blotches to huge areas around the flank, dorsal and even head. The tail flukes that are photographed just before a whale starts a deep, feeding dive also often have white patches, while the trailing edges reveal notches and bite marks. However, these bites are observed far less than those observed in the oceans, since the predators of sperm whales (sharks and killer whales) are rare in these waters. These distinct characteristics, together with numerous resights of the same individual whales over successive field seasons, lead the researchers to believe that these animals may be resident - remaining in the Mediterranean Sea for the duration of their lives. Some have hypothesized that the whales may migrate in and out of the Mediterranean via the Straits of Gibraltar, but the findings of Dr. Frantzis imply this is not the case. There is mounting evidence to suggest that perhaps the Greek animals may even form part of a resident eastern population, distinct from the animals in the west. Frantzis has never had a photo identification match between the two Mediterranean basins.

This is an especially interesting hypothesis considering mature males are known elsewhere in the world to migrate back and forth from the higher latitudes of the poles where they feed, to the lower tropical latitudes where they search for receptive females. Frantzis has so far identified 15 mature males - several of which are resighted over consecutive years. For example, the Greek researchers sighted a mature bull named 'Lefkotrypos', 5 years in succession, suggesting that mature males may also remain in the Mediterranean basin. Several other males with equally grand Greek names such as 'Zeus', 'Antonis' and 'Trypos' were sighted for 3 consecutive years. Frantzis and his team expect their continuing research will establish a conclusive answer to this perplexing question. It appears that unlike anywhere else in the world, social units and mature males in southwest Crete are sighted year round and in the same area.

We spent the day with a social group of 10 - 12 animals including 2 small calves and two juveniles. Frantzis and Voula were ecstatic to realize these were animals they recognized - a social group sighted at the very end of last year's field season named 'Bestend' which was only known from previous sightings in the Ionian Sea. Each social unit is given a common name, in this case 'Bestend' and each individual in the unit a subsequent name, such as Bestendal, Bestendogrommos and Bestendhawk. Frantzis identified four of the biopsied animals as Bestendy, Bestendo, Bestendleaf, and a calf having the provisional catalogue number '066-03'

This was one of the smaller animals - a newborn calf last year that is severely deformed. The researchers were particularly excited to discover it had survived its first year. The head and spermaceti organ of the animal are totally malformed with numerous bulges and dents that distort the orientation of the nose entirely. In addition, the front of the nose below the blowhole has a foot long wedge that splits the spermaceti organ in two above the jaw. Frantzis has never seen anything like it and has no idea what may have caused this condition. Fortunately in every other respect, the animal seems healthy and the Pelagos team looks forward to following its progress.

In the Mediteraneanean Sea, most sperm whales present white pigmentation on their body - a characteristic that appears to be unique to this resident population.
Photo : Chris Johnson

We collected 7 tissue samples from the group before leaving them late in the afternoon. In addition to the samples, we collected several images for photo identification and recorded numerous extended coda exchanges - communication clicks. These codas are unique to the Mediterranean population and consist of more than twenty types.

Frantzis and his team intend to study the sperm whales inhabiting Greek waters for several decades, however, they are concerned for the future of the Mediterranean population that appears to be comprised of a comparatively small number of animals, which are currently exhibiting signs of a population decrease. Frantzis is afraid their isolation from the Atlantic population leaves them exceptionally vulnerable to anthropogenic threats such as entanglements, chemical pollution, noise pollution including sonar and illegal dynamite fishing, and uncontrolled whale watching. "I have great difficulty merely convincing most Greeks that there are whales in the Mediterranean at all!" Alexandros told the Odyssey crew, and acknowledges he is facing a long uphill battle. However, Frantzis and his team know that by taking one step at a time, they are slowly raising awareness about the animals in the region and the threats they face, and that education is essential for the long-term conservation of the animals they are only just beginning to understand.


Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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