My name is Sabrina and I am studying the master of integrative zoology with the main focus on marine biology and the behavior of marine mammals in Rostock, Germany. Last year I finished my bachelor of biology and since I wrote my thesis about the visual cognition of cetaceans I developed a huge passion for marine mammals, especially cetaceans.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to experience cetaceans at the canary islands when I worked for an organization that combined whale watching and marine research. Unfortunately, the area where we collected the data was always the same and not that big. That´s why I wanted to get a better understanding of the appearance and behavior of cetaceans in a wider area and also when they are on the move and not residential.
That´s where I stumbled across Project Manaia for the first time. The opportunity to sail the Tyrrhenian Sea while looking out for marine mammals, marine debris, invasive species, and mapping seagrass meadows sounded exactly what I was looking for. I always loved to be on and especially in the water, therefore diving is not only my hobby but became my profession when I did my scientific diving certification. I also did dives and snorkels against marine debris before and looked for invasive species. But I never had anything to do with seagrass before and I had the feeling this would be a perfect possibility for me to deepen my existing knowledge and broaden my horizon.
First Contact with Project Manaia Team
I got in contact with Pinar and Manuel and we scheduled a zoom call to get to know each other and answer all my questions. From the first moment, they were really kind and did a good job of giving me a better idea of what their project is about. I didn´t hesitate a minute, booked my flights, packed my bag, and made my way to Ischia where I joined the Project Mania crew on the 19th of June. We went out for a welcome dinner and I met the people I would work and live with the next month. Pinar and Manuel (founder of Project Manaia), Max and MJ (bachelor students from Canada) and Tawani (bachelor student from South Africa), later on, Sabine (teacher from Germany) as well.
Life onboard SY Independence
In the next few days, I got introduced to the work and life onboard the SY Independence, the beautiful ketch sailboat which I called home for the next following weeks. I learned how to do transects (where we map the seagrass meadows and look out for species) and how to transfer the data we collected into excel sheets. One of my favorite parts of the data entry was looking at the pictures we took during the transects and identifying the species. I also tried to improve my underwater photographing skills, not sure if I did though.
On Ischia, a german tv team (ZDF) accompanied us one day at our work. We were really lucky to find a lot of seagrass seeds on the beach (seagrass blooms only happen every seven years!). We were the first ones who officially planted seagrass seeds in the Tyrrhenian sea!
I got really excited when we left Ischia to sail to Ventotene Island because it was the first long stretch where we would pass deeper waters and our friends from the Oceano Mare Delphis organization had seen sperm whales there before. Every time we sailed we watched observations and documented marine debris and marine mammals. Unfortunately, we didn´t see any sperm whales or marine mammals. At that point, this was not a big deal for me because I knew there would be plenty more watch observations and possibilities to see cetaceans. But little did I know then that I would not see any cetaceans during my whole one-month stay onboard the S.Y. Independence (still hard to hold the tears back here…but this is how nature works, it´s unpredictable and no one can guarantee you the appearance of free-living cetaceans).
On another note, what you can almost for sure guarantee during a watch observation is plastic. And even though we all know about the plastic pollution of the oceans, our regular and frequent sightings of it, gave me a totally different perspective. This in general happened to me a lot during my time with Project Manaia, it´s a totally different experience when you read a paper or watch a documentary about global warming, climate change, biodiversity loss, coral bleaching, plastic pollution, etc. or if you see, feel and experience it by yourself. One big problem with these things happening in the ocean is that they often happen out of sight and in silence. Because the ocean is so huge and not our natural habitat, we need to put the effort in to get an idea of what´s going on beneath the water’s surface. As a researcher and diver that´s what I am interested in but as someone who is not driven by this passion or interest it´s easy to ignore what an important role the oceans play for our planet and therefore how much we depend on them as healthy ecosystems.
This is the reason why the mission of Project Manaia, to protect the ocean through marine research at sea and by providing talks and much more to achieve a better understanding of our oceans, is so important. Quite often I feel helpless and overwhelmed by all the threats we create for our oceans. But as devastating as it is to see all the plastic floating in the sea or seagrass floating by after it was torn from the anchor, it´s just as motivating to change something. And because I really was at home on and in the ocean for this one month it became even clearer to me that every good deed as unimportant as it might seem can already change something for the better.
I always had a passion for everything revolving around the ocean and I have known before that everything is connected but just now I am starting to understand how some of these connections work. As sad as I am that we didn’t see any cetaceans, I am happy that I got a better insight into the important functions of seagrass as a carbon sink and breeding ground for all the species we saw during our transects. And these species and all their relationships and dependencies among themselves are again essential for rays, sharks and turtles. And without all of this, there wouldn´t be my beloved cetaceans.
Little details become visible by time
With every transect we did we got more familiar with the species and where we had to look for them. I enjoyed snorkeling and hanging out on the same rock for ages because suddenly I would spot all the little things like nudibranchs, goby, shrimp, etc. I will also never forget the encounters with the octopuses when we explored the caves at Ponza Island and the stingrays we saw at Palmarola Island. Every time we anchored in a new bay it was really exciting to go for the first transect and explore the underwater world.
Free time and free days during my stay
The same applies of course above the water surface. On our days off we had the opportunity to go on land from time to time and visit the beautiful Italian villages and eat lots of pizza and gelato. Besides the transects, we went for sunrise snorkels, got freediving lessons from Manuel, did swims around the boat to cool down, played card games, enjoyed delicious dinner while watching the sunset and had a lot of good talks and much more laughs.
From the first moment I walked onboard the S.Y. Independence I felt at home and as part of a family. I would go on for many more pages if I would try to fit everything into what I learned during my time with Project Manaia. I am beyond grateful for this experience and the people I met and for everything I learned from them. It blows my mind how dedicated and driven they are to follow their passion and to change something for the better. This motivates me to do the same and to keep faith that we can still change something and that´s worth fighting for.
By Anna Sabrina Petry