August 11, 2011

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The Other Side of Greece: Whale Watching!

Whales are not really that uncommon in Greece. Cetaceans- the biological order to which whales, dolphins and porpoises belong - appear on many ancient wall paintings, pottery, coins, jewellery etc throughout Greek history.

In fact, these marine mammals have been a part of Greek civilisation for over three and a half thousand years and the science of cetology was indeed founded by the ancient Greeks. In fact, the first scientific report on dolphins and whales is Historia Animalium written by Aristotle, and dates back to 350 BCE.

Going offshore - during a yachting holiday - is the best way to encounter dolphins and whales. Sailing the Aegean and Ionian waters gives you a good chance to study at least eight of the most interesting species of marine mammals up close and perhaps a few more if the conditions are right.

Tourists were stunned to see a huge whale swimming in the waters of Porto Germeno (in the Corinth Gulf) on Monday. Reports said that the sea mammal was spotted by fishermen several days ago, who quickly informed the Greek Coast Guard about the incident because it was clear that the mammal was trapped in this area and could not make its way to the open sea. Organizations involved with the protection of Marine Life are presently on the case.

The most common whales spotted in Greece are the sperm whales in Southern Crete. They are usually spotted in steep underwater cliffs that exist near the coastline. At these depths, deep-living squids on which sperm whales feed, are abundant. Research has shown that Southern Crete is the only known area in the world where social groups (i.e. females and their offspring) and solitary males co-exist all year round. The most plausible explanation for this unique phenomenon is that living conditions in this area are ideal for sperm whales.

Unfortunately at least one sperm whale dies every year in Greece after a collision with a large vessel. Several individuals have been seen bearing severe collision/propeller marks and injuries on their body. The rate of mortality due to collisions appears high and is likely unsustainable.
Although driftnet fishing is uncommon in the Greek Seas, individual sperm whales have been observed entangled or carrying driftnet pieces around their flukes. Plastic bags and debris are often found in the stomach of stranded animals and in some cases constitute the cause of their death.
Underwater explosions from illegal dynamite fishing activities occur very often within the sperm whale habitat, especially in SW Crete, although their impact on sperm whales cannot be assessed. Military sonar has also been used repeatedly within the limits of their habitat.

Whales of an Ancient Sea

Types of whales usually found in Greece

Spermwhale (Physeter catodon)

  • Size: 13-25m
  • Description: Females twice the size of males, weighs 50 tons, blows 15m air/water slightly forward
  • Environment: Open sea, in schools of 15-20 whales
  • Interesting fact: Can dive to 2250m depth, can swim 22km/h, lives off octopus, shellfish and seals, has offspring every three years, can live up to 50 years

Bowhead Whale (Balaenoptera physalus)
  • Size: 27,3m
  • Description: Second longest whale in the world, blows thin air/water vertically 4-7m, female larger than male.
  • Environment: Open sea
  • Interesting fact: Can dive for 4-30 minutes, lives off fish and plancton, can live up to 80 years.

Pilot whale
  • Size: Up to 6 metres long
  • Description: Rounded head, slate grey to black colour. low falcate dorsal fin
  • Environment: Swims in large groups and prefers open and deep waters
  • Interesting Fact: The Pilot Whale is an extremely social and gregarious species; the typical family unit contains between 30-80 individuals, though they are not particularly friendly with ships and do not ride bow waves. Normally they are not acrobatic, preferring to move slowly and 'log' at the surface. Globicephala melas vocalises with highly distinctive clicks and whistles.

Cuvier's beaked whale
  • Size: Up to 6.5 meters long ,
  • Description: Head slopes to a short beak, coloured in a range of browns and greys with white marks, distinctive small dorsal fin.
  • Environment: Prefers deep waters
  • Interesting Fact: Cuvier's beaked whales have chunky, mottled bodies, with widely varying appearance, but all will display the distinctive beaked or pointed mouth. A single pair of forward-pointing teeth at the tip of the lower jaw erupt only in adult males, and may be exposed outside the closed mouth in large males. When diving it arches its back steeply before and may lift flukes above the surface.

Fin Whale
  • Size: Up to 20 meters long
  • Description: Dark grey, assym. coloured lips, small falcate dorsal fin, frequents open waters. Gregarious. The usual pod size is 6 or 7 individuals
  • Environment: Prefers deep waters
  • Interesting Fact: The life span of a fin whale may be 85 to 90 years. These Mysticetes are known to leap completely out of the water and they produce a wide variety of low frequency sounds and may also produce high frequency pulses.


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