Photo by Gemma Gonzàlez
“To see their majestic tails rising slowly out of the water with such grace and grandeur is truly an awe-inspiring sight,” wrote Charles Darwin when he first encountered a pod of whales off Cape Horn. Happily for today’s wildlife lovers there is no need to travel thousands of miles to see these beautiful creatures, for just off the coast of Catalunya these fin whales pass close by during spring and early summer.
Two Barcelona natives are dedicating their lives to the study of fin whales migrating from the Atlantic: biologist Gemma Gonzàlez and diver Albert Lopez. However, more than just study, they are on a mission to share the annual phenomenon when up to 2,000 of the animals swim through the Strait of Gibraltar and past Catalunya on their journey to feeding grounds in the Ligurian Sea, between the Italian Riviera and the islands of Corsica and Elba.
The couple live aboard their 47-foot sailing catamaran ‘Dzul Haà’ (meaning Lord of the Sea in Mayan) moored in Roses harbour; a boat that acts as their home and office, a charter vessel and a floating science laboratory. Originally dolphin trainers in Riccione in Italy, they later worked at Barcelona Zoo for five years, but became disenchanted with the ‘circus’ approach they felt the institution took towards the animals in their care. As a direct result of their experiences Gonzàlez and Lopez set up Project Ninam in 2001.
Fin whales have long been visitors to Catalunya’s shores, but until Project Ninam started in Roses, little was known about their numbers, their behaviour or migration path. At its heart, the project is one of serious scientific research and Gonzàlez and Lopez are keen to distinguish the experience they offer to the public from standard ‘whale watching’ holidays. Whilst they charter their boat to people who want to observe the creatures in their natural habitat (a Saturday and Sunday charter with food and a night on board comes to around m250), the trips are carried out in a responsible and sensitive way with the aims of the project always paramount. By helping with the on-board chores and taking some of the scientific readings, their guests can contribute something positive towards mankind’s knowledge of these extraordinary animals.
In parallel with the work going on at Roses, there is also an on-line project run by a Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) student, Nuria Julià, which graphically displays sightings of cetaceans on a continually updated chart. The site is accessible by the general public, and makes it clear that Catalunya’s whales are not confined to deeper waters. For instance, adult fin whales and dolphins are regularly sighted just a few hundred metres off the coast of Cadaqués.
Though no inherent danger to inshore swimmers or boaters (fin whales are naturally shy of human contact), it’s not a good idea to get in their way. These 25-metre ‘greyhounds of the deep’ can accelerate from zero to 40 kilometres per hour in under five seconds, and weigh in at the equivalent of four of London’s double-decker buses, so they’re best given a wide berth.
Apart from monitoring the animals, the other aim of Project Ninam is to better understand the complex chain of dependencies that exists between marine life, sea-birds and the plant life of the northern Mediterranean. Though fin whales mainly trawl for krill, they also eat mackerel and herring. “One of the first signs of the whales feeding will be seabirds wheeling and diving over a rippled patch of water,” said Albert Lopez. “We’re interested in the whole picture. How each life-form relies on another.”
Working with very limited financial resources, running Project Ninam is proving a precarious balancing act. The couple spend a great deal of time campaigning and raising awareness among young people in schools and colleges; none of which brings in any income. However, in recognition of the work they are doing locally, the municipality of Roses is funding their mooring fee (not cheap at m12,000 a year) for a two-year period. They also work in conjunction with UAB, taking biology and veterinary students on trips to help with the project and earn degree credits along the way.
Many of the fin whales that pass close to the Catalunya coast are regular visitors, returning every year. Each animal is unique and by photographing the dorsal fin, noting its size, shape and distinguishing marks, individual whales can be identified. “They nearly always come back to the same place each year to gather, to socialise and to mate,” said Lopez. “They’re extraordinary creatures and although we’ve already carried out a huge amount of research, there is still a great deal more to learn.”
One of the classic sights in the world of nature is the drama of a huge sea mammal ‘breaching’, propelling itself high out of the water. “Bull whales do this as a call to mating,” said Gonzàlez. “They aim to attract the female with both the leap, and the sound they make as they crash back into the sea.”
A key element of Project Ninam is to involve the local community. A new initiative is being planned with the port authorities of Roses and nearby Empuriabrava whereby local fishermen and pleasure-boaters are being encouraged to log any sightings on their GPS system and pass on the information by email. Harnessing local support in this way greatly expands the project’s capability of building up an accurate database of all cetaceans in the region.
While the fin whale has no serious natural predator in the animal world, their greatest threat comes from man. Apart from overfishing, which ultimately reduces their food supply, there is the noise and risk of collision from boats. Worse still are pollutants that are continually pumped into the Mediterranean, such as run-off from agricultural pesticides and chemical waste from industry, endangering the sea’s already fragile eco-balance.
Fortunately, at least at a local level, there is something being done. Created in 1998 and covering over 13,000 hectares, the Cap de Creus National Park was Spain’s first combined marine-terrestrial reserve. Virtually all forms of development are restricted, as are anchoring, fishing and some water sports. The area now enjoys exceptionally clear waters and a return of several species of fish, marine flora and coral that had previously disappeared. “We want to see similar reserves all over the Mediterranean basin,” said Lopez. “Catalunya is showing the way forward, but internationally coordinated action needs to be taken. Before it’s too late.”
www.projecteninam.org for details of the project and boat charters available to the public.
www.parcsdecatalunya.net for Cap de Creus National Park.
www.opengis.uab.cat/WMS/cetcat/ for the updated chart showing cetacean sightings around Roses.
www.roses.cat for other things to do around Roses—walking, water sports and places to visit such as the restored Roman fort of La Cuidadela, the Aiguamolls wetlands nature reserve and the Salvador Dali House at Port Lligat.