This post is for those who love dolphins) Enjoy! My recent volunteer experience for a marine monitoring expedition devoted to dolphins in the Black Sea brought me to a marvelous world with glorious sea scenery, interesting meetings, and challenging tasks. It all starts at the Pomorie Lake Visitor Centre with visiting exhibitions or lectures about the local biodiversity.

Are there dolphins in the Black Sea?

Green Balkans declared November the month of dolphins. Every month they devote themselves to certain species and educate about them with creative activities, quizzes, and games. This year the expedition devoted to the counting of dolphins overlapped with the programme but it’s a regular scientific project carried out in Bulgaria twice a year since 2017.

Dolphins around the yacht Kaliakra, November 2020.
Video: Teodora Ilieva

Dolphin monitoring in the Black Sea is a vessel survey with the application of the internationally used method of distance sampling. The trained team observe transects with binoculars with an in-built compass and records information about spotted species: the type and number of dolphins, coordinates, behavior, and weather conditions. What’s great about such research is that anyone can participate in it as a volunteer.

Dolphins in the Black Sea
I’m in Balchik, November 2020: in several minutes from another adventure;) © Tatyana Garkavaya

I learned about such an original project during my conservation holidays in Pomorie. The head of the expedition ecologist Dimitar Popov was sharing exciting details of the previous dolphin studies during his talk about cetaceans in the Black Sea. About 200,000 dolphins of three species live in the Black Sea.

The infographic: dolphin species in the Black Sea
The infographic: dolphin species in the Black Sea. © Tatyana Garkavaya

The scientist also presented a book (in Bulgarian) about their expeditions written together with his colleague and wife Gallinula Meshkova and volunteer Teodora Ilieva.

The family of Bulgarian ecologists Dimitar Popov & Gallinula Meshkova
The family of Bulgarian ecologists Dimitar Popov & Gallinula Meshkova: Companions in life and work. © Gallinula Meshkova

‘Ideally, all the countries that border the Black Sea should conduct such research simultaneously, – said Dimitar Popov. – But in reality, it’s almost impossible to organize. There are six international partners: Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine, and everyone has different financial and political situations. Last year was probably the most productive in terms of collaboration. We did an international aerial survey of dolphins all together’.

Our November expedition lasted for one week during which 43 dolphin observations were recorded (in total 200 for 2020). But I volunteered only for two days due to seasickness. The first day was devoted to training in Balchick on the yacht Kaliakra. We learned how to use the equipment and record data.

Training for dolphin monitoring
Training for dolphin monitoring. © Tatyana Garkavaya

Birding in the sea

Except for me, there were two more volunteers. Teodora Ilieva (in the image below on the right), is a meteorology expert in hailstone from Montana. She began participating in the expedition from the very beginning. Petya, a teacher from Varna, eagerly supports volunteer projects of great social value that allow learning new things (cleaning beaches from stranded dolphins and supporting participants in mounting marathons).

The volunteers for dolphin monitoring in the Black Sea. © Tatyana Garkavaya

Having spent the night on the yacht, we met the sunrise in the open sea. The working day began at 7 am and finished at 4.30 pm. Each of us was on duty with binoculars for 30 minutes. In addition to dolphins, we recorded birds. It was quite a tiring and exciting task at the same time.

Sunrise in the Black Sea. © Tatyana Garkavaya

It was very beautiful around and nature changed every minute. On the other hand, it was quite scary. The qualm caused by sea sickness was making it difficult to move around the deck and concentrate on the task. This gamut of emotions allowed me to feel the mood of that mighty place that embodies the three natural elements: water, air, and space. That world doesn’t belong to us but it never stops attracting us and capturing the imagination with its eternal magic that can be inspirational or threatening depending on our fears.

A marine monitoring expedition: counting dolphins in the Black Sea.
A marine monitoring expedition: counting dolphins in the Black Sea. © Gallinula Meshkova

Studies on dolphins in the Black Sea are very scarce. That’s why scientists welcome any public support in the observation and recording of encounters with dolphins, both alive and dead. The special application Black Sea Watch allows everyone to become a social scientist and report any information about dolphins with a mobile phone. The application is a great database and learning tool at the same time that connects nature lovers and scientists and enables them to exchange information.

It’s really fascinating to develop environmental literacy by reporting observations and learning from them!

Images: Gallinula Meshkova, Tatyana Garkavaya, and Teodora Ilieva