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Mediterranean 2007 Expedition

At the beginning of May, the Oceana Ranger inaugurated its 2007 Expedition, this year to take place in the Mediterranean Sea.

Diaries

We begin the last day with calm seas and practically no wind. We are east of Columbretes at seven in the morning, profiling the canyon that is located there with the sonar. The surface is at approximately 120 meters depth, falling to 600-700 meters from there, and the walls are almost vertical in some parts.

After almost three days of storms, including almost 20 hours of jumps and jolts during the first day and at dock the other two days, we can set sail at last. The weather is not as good as the report said it would be, but it will get better as the day passes.

After a few days in Formentera to prepare to ROV for filming the seamounts of the channel of Mallorca, we start work once again. Yesterday, we took advantage and the divers were able to get some images of groupers (Epinephelus marginatus), striped groupers (Epinephelus costae), mottled groupers (Mycteroperca rubra), barracudas (Sphyrna viridensis) and other medium and large-sized fish.

Last night, we set sail from Palma and headed towards the seamounts of the channel of Mallorca. We had to make some adjustments because we wanted to reach 300 meters depth, and we had to wait until the weather improved. As soon as we were ready, we headed towards the first and deepest seamount, Les Olives.

Although the sea was quite calm, the morning was cloudy. The clouds do not only appear in the sky, though. They also appear on the robot, with which we are having some difficulties.

We reach Cabrera on the 15th in the afternoon in order to continue sampling the eastern part of the National Park. Ten minutes after the robot was in the water, we saw some fog beginning to form on the camera lens, which is bad news; water was somehow getting inside. We decide to suspend the dive and lift the ROV out of the water. There must be a broken seal or connection.

Today we will stay at port in Rota. There is a windstorm in the Straits of Gibraltar, and we'll have to wait for the weather to improve in order to cross over to the Balearic Islands. We must prepare the boat today and reorganise all the information we’ve obtained during the week, prepare the documents to send to Madrid and, in short, draw some conclusions.

We practically haven't slept at all. The dive with the ROV was impressive, in spite of the fact that it was in shallow water, we spent three hours observing the nocturnal feeding habits of squid and cuttlefish, and the dark shadows of the predators hunting the small fish attracted to us by the lights.

For days we’ve been seeing what we believe to be Cymodocea nodosa floating in the water. Its presence off the coasts of Huelva was documented for the first time in the delta of the Piedras River, in March of this year. We believe there must be more areas where meadows of this seagrass can be found. We ask Ricardo and he gives us some coordinates he has obtained from satellite images.

Today, we wanted to finish mapping the area where we found the gorgonians in order to delimit it and prepare a proposal for its protection. But, when we reached the waypoint, our hearts were literally broken in two… Two trawlers were fishing atop the sea beds we had documented the day before. The Nuevo Panchita and the Abuelo Pichin were illegally trawling their nets at approximately 23 meters depth and at less than 6 miles from the coast.

Today, no one had hopes of finding anything “exceptional” on the sea bed. After 5 months of campaigning, the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean and the marvellous ecosystems we’ve observed, it's difficult to make everyone understand the importance of these waters and their riches.

Today, we set sail from Rota at 6:30 in the morning in order to sample some sandstone located between Matalascañas and Mazagón where we suspect there may be gorgonians. Juan Carlos Calvín disembarked today and tonight we will return early to port to pick up the photographer who will take his place, Juan Cuetos.

I never thought I would go back to working on the Ranger in Andalusia, much less so in Huelva. It’s a strange feeling to see a place you are so close to from such a different perspective. This morning we set out from the port of Rota and headed for the mouth of the Guadalquivir to document the sea bed in the area of the National Park of Doñana with the ROV and the divers, but with poor expectations owing to the visibility conditions the area offers.

We woke up in Barbate. Atlantic heat, sandy shades of colour and the large, pine green dunes. We are tied at the same port and pier that received the Ranger for the first time on Spanish land after the 2005 expedition from the U.S. city of San Diego. Wow… I’m having a déjà vu!

After sailing through the night protected by cape Espartel, south of Tangiers, we decided to cross the Straits from south to north and take refuge in Barbate. The east winds are blowing at more than 40 knots and the Tangiers netters are surely not going out to fish during the next few days. They need dark nights and relatively calm seas. They have the darkness, but there is an important storm that prevents them from setting the driftnets. We’re in the recreational port of Barbate, managed by the Autonomous Government of Andalusia and built next to the traditional fishing port.

We’ve been patrolling the banks at night located southeast of Alboran Island that separate the undersea canal through which large pelagic species migrate, such as the swordfish. That’s where the Moroccan driftnetters, based in ports such as Nador or Alhucemas, usually set their driftnets. But today the weather was bad, and no one went out to fish. We’ve decided to leave the area and head quickly towards the Straits. The wind has changed from west to east, so we’re comfortably pushed towards the Atlantic. We hoist the Genoa sail, and that gives us more speed and stability.

We spent the night anchored off Melilla. From here, we clearly see the entrance to the neighbouring port of Nador. No driftnetters have left there, yesterday or today. The west wind is still blowing fiercely, so much so that it has ripped off one of the blades from our wind-powered generator on the stern. But anchored here, it’s fine. A large number of seiners have gone out and after leaving the protected area of the breakwater, they head east and shelter themselves in the gulf where they will capture sardines and other small pelagic species, probably.

We didn’t have a good night. The westerly winds were strong enough to make a few of the new arrivals – especially some of the journalists – feel somewhat “uncomfortable”. Those of us who have been on the Ranger for days have already been through that ritual and slept like logs. In the morning, the seas were still quite rough and the winds did not lose intensity. We crossed the area where the driftnetters fish during the night and have not found anyone working there.

At four in the morning, we were awoken by the sound of the Ranger hitting the island’s dock. The effect of the tide and the undertow created by the wind that had picked up during the last few hours inside the island's tiny port had neutralised the protection of the fenders that had been shifted by the boat's movements. Now, the heavy catamaran was being transformed into a toy for the waves attempting to throw it against the concrete dock with more strength each time.

After being away from the Ranger for five weeks, it's now time to be reinstated onboard and relieve Ricardo Aguilar. One is never too sorry to leave the busy streets of Madrid, and after the small dose of the usual airport torture that any citizen must face in order to calm their nerves and mood, I arrive at Almerimar. That is where the boat finally docked two days before to carry out some maintenance work and changes to the crew.

Today has been an exciting day.

We had a good scare. The little seamount we went to sample turned out to be the most complicated one of all. The lines, nets, ropes and other fishing tackle abandoned here have transformed this seamount into a spider web. And to top it all off, the robot got tangled in a longline at 170 meters depth.

After a lot of hard work, and a good measure of luck, we were able to haul the equipment onboard. It was, however, covered in lines, buoys and hooks. Now we have to verify that nothing has been damaged.

We continue diving in Almeria in the area of Seco de los Olivos. We have not seen any cetaceans in this area this year, quite the contrary to last year, and we have been here two days with calm seas and excellent visibility. In general, the sightings during the last month and a half can be counted with one hand. We’ve almost seen more swordfish jumping out of the water than dolphins. Each year the situation gets worse. And not many turtles, either.

Once in Almeria, we’ve made the port of Almerimar our base for operations in order to work in Seco de los Olivos between Punta Entinas and Punta Elena.

On the first day, we head out to Seco to see one of the small elevations there are towards the east and to look around the top of the main seamount in the afternoon.

The summit of the small elevation east of Seco is at approximately 90 meters. From there, an area of rockfalls extends to 130 meters and then we reach the sandy sea floors.

Today we were going to take a look at the seamounts that appear in the charts approximately 20 miles east of Cabo de Gata. According to the charts we have, the three summits are between 180-2000 meters depth and are located atop a small platform at 900 meters, from here they fall to over 2,000 meters.

On our way to Cartagena to get supplies, do some general cleaning and take care of other things, we stop for a few hours in the island of Las Palomas to take another look at the area.

The divers will explore the area near the seamount located south of the small island while the ROV will work in the east.

This area is invaded by exotic species, such as the red algae Lophocladia lallemandi and Asparagopsis spp., and the colonial coral Oculina patagonica.

We're now back in Cabo de Palos and we’re going to continue our dives in Islas Hormigas.

Within the Reserve, the divers are finding a large variety of fish, including barracuda (Sphyraena viridensis) and the three species of grouper (Epinephelus marginatus, Epinephelus costae and Mycteroperca rubra). Today, some of the divers told us they saw manta rays (Mobula mobular) in this area.

Today we are really sweating. It’s the hottest day since we began the expedition. But at least the sea is calm and this makes our work much easier.

We continue to work with the ROV in the Seco de Palos. We find remnants of fishing tackle every 20 meters; lines, hooks, nets, etc.

We’re taking advantage of the day and that’s why we woke up even earlier today, in order to get to Cabo de Palo early and make some crew changes.

After three dives at between 100 and 180 meters, now it's time to study the tapes patiently and identify the species.

Today we must wake up a bit earlier. It will take us more than three hours to reach our destination. As soon as we set sail, we begin seeing the trawlers carrying out their activities. We see them all over for a long time, until the sea floors become deeper, reaching 700-800 meters depth.

The ocean is quite calm and there is barely any wind; the perfect conditions for turtle sighting. The first three appear in front of us and we only have to turn a little to see them up close.

Early in the morning we leave Cartagena and set sail towards Cabo de Palos; we will meet with the marine reserve guards there to comment on our plans. The paperwork is quick and we’re wailing towards Bajo de Fuera in no time. The top is located at only 4 meters depth and the northern slope plunges to 35-45 meters depth, while the southern slope plunges to greater depths.

It looks better this morning, but swells are expected in Cabo de Palos after easterly winds (Levante) have been blowing these past few days. So we won't risk it and we’ll take advantage of the day by concentrating our work in the area between Cabo Tiñoso and La Azohia. This coastal area is still magnificent thanks to its spectacular topography but, above all, because it has not yet been destroyed by property development like most of the Spanish coast. Actually, it’s strange to see the coastline without one building or crane nearby.

We’ve spent the last few days closely following the "Don Pedro” spill in Ibiza. Although the largest oil spill took place on the first day, the merchant ship was still leaking smaller amounts on the following days. Work is still being carried out to seal the cracks in the wreck, but it is difficult to stop the leaking.

We are still in Ibiza. Early in the morning, we go out to see what the situation is like.

The area where the largest slick was located is now much more dissolved and dispersed, forming only some small fuel patches, and most of it has been removed by the cleaning ships.

The marine rescue vessel is still in the area where the accident took place carrying out operations; trying to find the best method to extract the fuel from the holds of the "Don Pedro". The divers are also here, sealing what appears to be the last crack from which the fuel is leaking.

Yesterday, we continued to study the sea floors around Cabo de La Nao.

We carried out a couple of dives with the divers between Isla de Portixol and Cape San Martin. Again, we spotted gorgonians including the white sea fan (Eunicella singularis) and the yellow sea fan (Leptogorgia sarmentosa), many nudibranchs, cardinalfish (Apogon imberbis) with their eggs in their mouths, eels (Muraena helena), conger eels (Conger conger) and many other fish.

Today we start the day with a dive in the Cabo de San Antonio. Here, the marine reserve guards provide us with information about the area.

It is a rocky wall with one rock descending to approximately 20 meters depth. Like other places in this area, there are few gorgonians, including some dispersed white sea fans (Eunicella singularis) and yellow sea fans (Leptogorgia sarmentosa).

Nudibranchs are abundant and include sea slugs (Discodoris atromaculata), as well as Hypselodoris sp. and Thurridilla hopei.

We’re still in Cabo de la Nao. We’ve done two more dives with the ROV on this sea floor and one dive with the divers in Cabo Negro.

Today it was the Audouin gulls (Larus audounini) that have accompanied us this morning. We continue to study these mostly muddy sea floors with the ROV where we spot crabs, gobies, sole, cuttlefish and a few octopus. The small anthozoan Epizoanthus arenaceus also frequently occurs here.

We have also spotted a few abandoned nets and a strange, unidentifiable object covered in algae, hydrozoans and other marine creatures.

At dawn, we reach the coast facing Gandía and the first thing we see is a group of trawlers fishing in the area. As we head south, more trawlers appear. Some of them are fishing within the forbidden area at less than 50 meters depth, others are just on the border, while a few others are further away in deeper waters.

Flocks of shearwaters and gulls follow them, taking advantage of the discards.

After sleeping in Columbretes where, by the way, we were the only boat anchored, we’ve gone to Placer de la Barra Alta to continue working with the ROV in the northeastern area. The depression we found last year is located there.

The sea floor is similar throughout the entire area. At first, there is maerl at approximately 60-70 meters, although it’s chopped up by the continuous passing of the trawlers. After that, it’s muddy.

Finally, we left Palma de Mallorca at 1:00 in the morning and set sail towards El Placer de la Barra Alta. It was good sailing and at some point, with the jib hoisted, we reached 10 knots.

At some 25 miles east of Columbretes we see a flock of shearwaters feeding on a bank of small pelagic fish that look like sardines or round sardinella. Later on we see another bank were small tuna are feeding. Finally, the striped dolphins appear (Stenella coeruleaolba), playing with the ship’s bow for a while.

We continue our work east of Cabrera. Again, we find some extensions of Laminaria rodriguezii, although less dense. We also find coralline and, at last, the gorgonians. There are not many and, if we are not mistaken, they are Paramuricea macrospina. Also, we find a few black corals that look like Antipathes sp. They are very small and not very dense.

Spectacular. Today we worked with the divers east of Na Redona to see the transition from here to the more eastern area where we’re working with the ROV. It’s a wall that plunges 25 meters with some areas at just 14 meters, where we see barracudas (Sphyraena sp.), picarels (Spicara spp.) and many other fish. On the sea floor, apart from a few rocks, there is also some Posidonia oceanica.

I say spectacular, however, because of the difference between the two transects we have made with the robot at depths between 60 and 110 meters.

We’ve been taking samples in Emile Baudot. The ROV has gotten hooked twice: once on a rock and again on a longline.

The amount of ropes, fishing lines and nets that are scattered around here is incredible. Towards the south, between 140 and 160 meters depth, there are some large rocks, some of them forming interesting structures, where dozens of remnants of fishing tackle are caught, making it difficult to work with the ROV here.

Yesterday the 26th, we couldn’t sail and had to stay at port in Cabrera. Today we woke up at seven in the morning and sailed towards the south. While the divers explored the area of Los Estells, we did some transects.

This has been an eventful day. When we submerged the ROV, we blew a circuit breaker and all the screens went black. We had to lift the ROV onboard again and start over. Then, our zodiac almost sunk and we've had to suspend the diver's work for this afternoon. The rest of the day was calmer.

After navigating along the Italian coast for two days, on the morning of 5th June we arrived at the Aeolian Islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the north-east coast of Sicily. The objectives at this point of the campaign were: on one hand to continue with the search for and documentation of illegal netters; and, on the other, to make a number of dives to document the formation of underwater fumaroles. This interesting phenomenon is very characteristic of the area due to the volcanic activity of the archipelago.

We left the shores of Corsica, and the stormy French waters, for the peace of La Maddalena archipelago, in the north of the island of Sardinia.

Although Corsica made an excellent impression on us through the tranquillity of the streets of Bastia’s Vieux Port area, and the spectacular views of the Corsican coast, Sardinia also has beautiful scenery. We’ve also discovered many mountainous areas in this part of the Mediterranean, with mountains and cliffs that drop down to the turquoise blue waters of the sea, forming coves and a picturesque contrast of colours.

Yesterday we left Bastia in Corsica, bearing south, after the Coastguard had politely but firmly invited us to leave the country, France, in order to avoid further confrontations with the driftnetters, as it seems these were mobilising in order to block our passage. We’d scarcely had time to properly enjoy this island, which has all the charm of the Mediterranean and merits a longer visit, and we left before the divers had been able to dive in its waters to learn a little more about its habitat.

Following five days spent in Marseilles with the weather unsettled and the driftnetters moored and waiting for the good weather conditions that would allow them to return to their habitual robbery, we finally set sail at dawn on 18th May, bearing for Hyeres, fearing that we would again find driftnetting activity near the port. If so, we would again film the illegal fishing.

We arrived on Sunday, after spending half a day bouncing over the many high Mediterranean waves which were the result of a fresh 40-knot southeasterly wind. We’ve taken advantage of these few days of bad weather to make small repairs, wait for the technical service on the satellite telephone and to swap guests. Our good friend Ben disembarked, who we’d given sea legs to through the rough weather, and we welcomed on board a member of the Oceana Board in the United States.

On the 7th of May we set sail from Torredembarra (Tarragona, Spain) in a northerly direction, and after the planned preparations we sailed through the Mediterranean sea. I was very excited at the start of this expedition, and a little nervous.

The weather was on our side and we sailed comfortably, enjoying the good temperature. Watches were allocated for the journey and the routine on-board work started. Our destination was the port of Roses, where we wanted to photograph all the trawlers of the port sailing out at once.

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