28 December 2008

Whale Watching Uphill

A recollection

I arrived in Montecastello di Vibio with my father’s motorhome late in the day, parking near the hotel recommended for the international workshop on “Scientific aspects of managing whale watching”. It was the end of March 1995 and the brownish hills of Umbria, in central Italy, were covered by a thin layer of snow. I had managed to be invited at the workshop largely because it was co-organized by Tethys, that back then was my mother organization, but no room had been booked for me at the only hotel in town.

If I already felt a bit like an intruder, spending the night in the parking lot didn’t make things easier. I had a hard time keeping myself warm in the icy night and spent most of it awake, wondering whether I should drive back home in the following morning, and forget about the workshop altogether.

27 December 2008

Dolphins, Photography and Dreams

A recollection

Back in my twenties, when I was moving my first steps as a cetology geek, I was assigned the task of recording observations of Mediterranean whales and dolphins by Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, who was my thesis co-advisor. ‘Find a boat and report what you see’, he said. Back in 1986, little was known about the distribution and ecology of whales and dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea. I managed to board a mid-size oceanographic ship and set out to defy my own seasickness, looking for dorsal fins and flukes from the upper deck of R/V ‘Bannock’, together with my colleague Benedetta Cavalloni.

Our first cruise brought us to the Sicily Channel, where on the second day at sea I made one of my best sightings ever. A mixed group of nine common dolphins and one bottlenose dolphin came to ride the ship’s bow. We had spotted a school of faraway striped dolphins on the previous day, but that event has faded in my memory. The mixed Delphinus / Tursiops group, however, was not going to be forgotten.

The large bottlenose dolphin behaved as the group leader and immediately positioned himself right in front of the bow, enjoying the pressure wave generated by the fast-moving ship and not allowing any of the smaller common dolphin members to gain his apparently privileged position.

I had loaded a roll of black and white film into my Pentax LX all-manual reflex camera, but I soon realized that wasn’t a good way of capturing such a colourful moment. I quickly shot the last B&W photos and inserted a 36-frame roll of colour slides.

The morning light was beautiful and sharp, the dolphins lively and playful. Common dolphins were swimming fast on both sides of the ship, leaping at unison in golden water spry, gliding in the deep-blue water and showing their ochre-coloured flanks and amazing grace. Photography was a serious challenge in those days, and I was absorbed by the difficult task of manually focusing and using the right settings. I knew I was shooting extraordinary images: my first photos of wild cetaceans, a dream come true.

At frame number 36 I was ready to change the roll, but my camera kept shooting. At frame 38 I started worrying a little, but because the film was hand-rolled it wasn’t unusual to get a few additional shots. After frame number 40, however, I grew quite nervous. What was going on there? A layer of fog filled my eyes, and the beauty of the moment disappeared. I kept shooting, pretending that the roll was about to end, but it did not. In my hurry, I had failed to insert the tip of the film deep into the slit of the winder drive: the camera had been shooting on idle since the beginning, as if no roll was loaded. I opened the camera back and frantically reloaded the roll, but by then the sighting was over. The dolphins had left.

Months later, Benedetta and I were invited to present our work to a public of specialists at the Milan Natural History Museum. These included Giuseppe, the eminent cetacean expert Luigi Cagnolaro and two young scientists who had been pioneering field research on cetaceans in the Ligurian Sea: Michela Podestà and Luca Magnaghi. I was given a chance of reporting the results of our surveys and showing the photos and data we had collected in the central and eastern Mediterranean. That was my first public presentation ever, and I felt nervous and uneasy. I desperately wanted to show that Benedetta and I had done a good job, but was way too anxious to make a good impression. At the end of the slide show, after my disappointing talk, someone from the floor asked if we really had sighted common dolphins, particularly in a mixed group. Even back in the mid 1980s such sightings were infrequent: could I please project a slide to document our correct identification of the animals?

It was a moment of panic. No, I couldn't show any slide. I stammered my technical mistake, which made me feel ridiculous and unfit. I can't tell whether at that point I saw ironic smiles and heads shaking in the audience, or it was just my imagination. It felt terrible anyway: I had been unable of documenting an important dolphin observation and couldn’t even manage to use my own camera. How could I stand a chance of ever becoming a cetacean scientist?

After the talk, Giuseppe asked me to show the black and white prints and although these were no Bob Talbot’s, the correct identification of common dolphins in a mixed group was unquestionable. At least our credibility was ok, but that experience was going to leave a lasting shade... in my dreams.

Since then, for many years, I regularly dreamed of extraordinary sightings: orcas swimming in rivers, hundreds of dusky dolphins socialising in beautiful sandy lagoons, sperm whales performing spectacular leaps near my boat. I was there with my camera, excited for the opportunity of documenting something special, but unable of taking a single photo.

Today, after many years, such dreams have stopped bothering me. I may have managed to overcome that particular frustration. Eventually, I can laugh at the experience and tell myself I should have set aside the nonworking camera to simply enjoy the amazing sighting.

Giovanni Bearzi, December 2008