So after visiting Pompeii, I took a hydrofoil from Naples to the port of Casamicciola on the island of Ischia, to get on with the main purpose of my trip – volunteering on the Ischia Dolphin Project. This project involves surveying the waters around Ischia for whales and dolphins, recording their presence, as well as behaviour and bioacoustics when possible.
I spent the week living onboard the project’s sailing vessel, the Jean Gab, sharing space with two researchers, two other volunteers, the captain, and the resident dog Berta. Living on a boat is something I’ve never done before, and it’s certainly a unique experience. Space was very limited: my little bunk was slim but still very comfortable. I had managed to cram my luggage into a collapsible holdall at the last minute before leaving – there wouldn’t have been room for a rigid suitcase – but this left me without a few things, like a sweatshirt, which I missed more than I expected, as it could get a bit chilly in the evenings even in this area! Using the toilet, meanwhile, required remembering a sequence of handle turns to operate the pump and then close it off again to make sure water didn’t come spilling over the bowl – and then there was the task of actually balancing on the toilet, in a very small space, while the boat was rocking in the waves.
Unfortunately, on the first full day, we didn’t go out in the boat due to inclement weather: there’s not much point looking for whales in particularly rough seas. Instead, we were given a lesson in the cetaceans that can be seen in the area (common dolphin, striped dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, sperm whale, fin whale) and took a walk to the neighbouring municipality of Lacco Ameno, where can be seen the Mushroom Rock pictured above.
On Wednesday, the weather cleared up nicely and we were able to take the boat out, heading several miles west and taking turns to watch the surrounding sea for anything interesting. Unfortunately, I was limited in how much work I could do, as I got quite seasick! On the way back to port, we stopped in a bay for a swim, which made me feel a bit better, despite the water being surprisingly cold.
On Thursday, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I felt perfectly fine, and continued to do so from that point onward. I was thus able to both appreciate the relaxing experience of being out at sea in a quiet sailing boat (it had an engine, but it wasn’t used all the time), and take all my turns on watch. We saw some jumping tuna and a loggerhead turtle (though we were under sail so had to go past it), but no cetaceans.
On Friday, we took a different route, heading round to the south of the island where the water is deepest (about 800m). Still no cetaceans, but we spotted another turtle (possibly the same one) and this time, we were able to photograph it!
Saturday was our last full day, so we all had our fingers crossed. The weather wasn’t ideal; windy with cloud cover and occasional rain. But about half an hour out of the port – we finally saw something!
Bottlenose dolphins – four or five individuals, swimming together in what our researchers reckoned was feeding behaviour. And not only could we see them, we could hear their clicks and whirrs over the boat’s hydrophone.
The next three and a half hours were spent chasing the dolphins, who would repeatedly disappear for a few minutes and then pop up again some distance away, triggering the captain to turn on the engine and head in their direction so we could continue taking photographs before the dolphins disappeared again. They didn’t seem too enamoured with the boat, coming within a certain distance but no further. I wasn’t able to get many still photos – predicting where the dolphins would come up and pressing the button quickly enough wasn’t easy – so I mostly stuck to the video footage.
Eventually, as the dolphins appeared to settle down, we headed into port early, having successfully contributed to the survey and had a fitting end to a really unique experience.
Hearing the dolphins clicking and whirring must’ve been quite the experience. The closest I’ve ever encountered these creatures and whales in the wild are from a larger ferry. Cheers!