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All is quiet when, suddenly, Laura Pintore calls out. She’s spotted something just under the glittering surface of the Ligurian Sea. While giving instructions to the Blue Panda’s captain to correct the boat’s course toward what she’s seen, Laura grabs her camera. As the cetaceans expert for WWF Italy, and PhD student in Applied Biological Sciences and Biotechnology at the University of Turin, Laura is seasoned at spotting the slightest movement possibly indicating the presence of a whale or dolphin.
The Mediterranean Sea is one of the busiest seas in the world for boating, for cargo, for tourism. Yet its cetaceans are remarkably unknown. The sea is home to eight resident species of cetaceans, including fin, sperm, pilot, and Cuvier’s beaked whales, as well as common, striped, common bottlenose, and Risso’s dolphins.
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) considers four of these species data deficient. “We don’t know how they live or where they live,” Laura says. The other four are vulnerable or critically endangered. For instance, Laura points out, the common bottlenose dolphin’s name is deceptive: the species is vulnerable in the Mediterranean. Cetaceans suffer from constant anthropogenic threats like naval traffic, collisions, by-catch, plastic and noise.
During the Blue Panda week, Laura and a team from WWF Italy were on board to collect data on cetaceans – something they do regularly. “We need to study them to collect data and try to understand what their health status is to promote their conservation and save them,” Laura explains.
Apart from seeing playful striped dolphins, the team spotted Cuvier’s beaked whales (one of the species which IUCN lists as data deficient). “For us, that sighting was amazing. We met three adults: one male, probably one female, and one younger individual. They were traveling in the Pelagos Sanctuary, which is a special protected area of importance in the Mediterranean Sea.”
Another project that Laura is working on at WWF Italy involves citizens, and tourists in particular, in cetacean research. The project, called Vele del Panda (sails of panda), invites tourists to come on research cruises with WWF researchers. The trips help to gather data on cetaceans. “Our goal is to create a database that we want to share with the scientific community and the IUCN, to cover this gap about data deficient species and try to solve the threats for critically endangered species.”
Speaking with visitors who may have no prior knowledge about cetaceans is important, Laura says. Often people are surprised by stories on the marine mammals’ behavior and sociality. Yet, it’s even more important to talk about the threats they face. “When I say that plastic can kill and that noise can disturb, it clicks in the minds of the people. They understand that humans are causing bad things to these animals and that it’s important to protect them, to avoid using single-use plastics and doing things that are pro-nature and not against nature.”
But, for someone so used to working with these special marine mammals, is there anything she still hasn’t seen? “I love fin whales, they are the subject of my PhD. And I love striped dolphins. I studied them for my master’s thesis,” Laura says. “But, until now, I have never seen pilot whales, so I really want to see them. I am really curious.”