Researchers aim to help Bosporus dolphins thrive

Researchers aim to help Bosporus dolphins thrive

A pod of dolphins is seen swimming in İstanbul’s Bosporus waters in this 2007 file photo. (PHOTO AA)

September 23, 2012, Sunday/ 12:25:00

Suddenly, a dorsal fin breaks the water. The people on the boat are thrilled since the discovery makes their day a success.

Although a lot of people traverse the Bosporus every day by ferry, motorboat or container ship, few are aware that dolphins live nearby, says Aylin Akkaya, the coordinator of a project to research the dolphins’ behavior.

Akkaya visits the Bosporus by boat once a week, collecting data and taking photos of dolphins. “The Bosporus is one of the most frequented waterways in the world,” she explains. “We want to find out to what extent the animals’ behavior is affected by the shipping.”

For countries like Russia and Georgia, the Bosporus provides access to the Mediterranean and to international maritime trade. About 50,000 ships pass through the strait between the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea every year. By watching the dolphins in their different habitats, Akkaya and the students can figure out where the animals go to fish, breed and socialize. “When we find that two dolphins are always hanging out together, we can conclude that they are friends,” the biologist says. By differentiating between the different habitats, the scientists want to discover which areas are essential for the animals. The data collected will help subsequent negotiations with the government about ways to protect these areas.

When boats are passing nearby, the dolphins respond by swimming faster or slower, although this is not their natural behavior. “This threatens them,” the coordinator says. She cites pollution and noise as the main problems, as the sound of the motors goes deep into the sea where it disturbs the dolphins. The project is meant to inform the researchers about a potential decrease in population or the disappearance of the mammal from this area.

Accompanied by students from Germany and France, Akkaya records the time and traffic on the Bosporus, and a GPRS device traces the coordinates. Using surveying instruments, the researchers note the distance between the dolphins and vessels passing. A student discovers a group of three dolphins, and soon after, there is a pod just 50 meters from the boat. With binoculars, Akkaya remarks to one of the students about the species: “Bottlenose, diving.”

There are three species of dolphins living in this area: the bottlenose dolphin, the common dolphin and the harbor porpoise. The latter is the shyest, Akkaya says. Bottlenose dolphins, like the one in the 1960s popular TV series “Flipper,” are those most frequently seen.

The researchers are able to distinguish the marine animals by their dorsal fins. “[The fin] is unique,” she says. Each differs, for example, by size, shape and scars from fights. “We even give them names,” Akkaya says, laughing. Later, the researchers compare the dolphins in the photos they have taken that day.

The project is not only about collecting data but also teaches children about the importance of dolphins for the environment and the ecosystem -- that it’s crucial to protect them. Every two weeks, the researchers invite children to accompany them to the Marmara Sea. “We point out that pollution is a serious problem,” Akkaya states. Even a single plastic bag in the water can kill a dolphin if the animal eats it, she says.

Moreover, there are dolphins dying when they are accidentally caught by closely meshed fishnets and are suffocated to death. Nonetheless, Akkaya says, fishermen still complain about dolphins destroying fishnets. “But in fact, the dolphins help the fishermen by driving the fish in this area toward them.”

Together with İstanbul University, the Turkish Marine Research Foundation, an NGO dedicated to the protection of marine life, brought the project into being last year. The data from the project will be analyzed in 2014. The researchers hope for a comprehensive outline that will help them protect the animals and keep them in the Bosporus.

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