How often do you get to see a baby whale being born? I have worked as marine biologist for more than 15 years, and this was a first for me. A miracle of nature – awesome in the true sense of the word – happening in our beautiful home: the Mediterranean.
For over 10 years, WWF has monitored studied, identified and counted eight species of whale and dolphin populations in the Mediterranean. This effort, together with that of many other organizations and governments, led to the creation of the Pelagos Sanctuary in 2001. Today the sanctuary is the largest marine protected area in the Mediterranean, extending over 87,000 square kilometers and accounting for roughly half of the current protected sea surface.
I had been wanting to join my colleague Denis Ody on a survey for a long time. Denis is the brains and heart behind WWF’s Mediterranean cetacean expeditions; he started exploring the world with Captain Jacques Cousteau in the 1980s aboard the famous ship Calypso.
This week, my wish to join Denis and his crew came true and I finally boarded the catamaran Maja with six other crew members and captain Nathalie, all passionate about ocean protection. I must admit that the beauty and richness of wildlife in the ocean can easily fade away when I am hunkered down in my office in the center of Rome. So I am aware of how challenging it is for people to keep in mind all that the ocean provides for us, from a stable climate to food to oxygen.
But if everyone could have an experience like we had aboard the Maja, they would look at the ocean with fresh eyes. First we spotted a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) from the bridge of the catamaran, then began counting the individuals as we drew closer and closer – two then three then five then 15!
Fred Bassemayousse, who works as the expedition’s photographer, slowly got in the water and we followed him closely as he approached the whales. Then he spotted the baby, still shedding his umbilical cord. The water offered further proof of the recent birth as the placenta was still flowing through the water column. We watched, transfixed.
The whales didn’t move away as we would have expected, they did not flee. On the contrary, they approached us, allowing us to join the celebration they were having for the newborn coming into the world. We spent the rest of that day observing the whales from a safe distance, always careful to avoid disturbing them. Individuals took turns greeting the newcomer, protected between two older individuals (probably relatives) and the mother. The ritual went on and on, until there was no more light for us to see.
During the weeks that Denis spends off the coast of France and Italy every year, he has the opportunity to witness the diversity of wildlife of the Mediterranean. More than just whales and dolphins, there are mantas, turtles, moon fish, tuna, swordfish and many seabirds.
I could only join Denis for a week, but it was sufficient to admire once again the small miracles that the Mediterranean still holds within its waters. With only one per cent of its coastline left untouched, the Mediterranean has been exploited and altered for centuries. Yet the whales, and many other incredible animals, return every year to this amazing place that they, like us, call home.
Giuseppe Di Carlo is the director of WWF’s Mediterranean Marine Initiative