One might expect you as a guest to have some manner and behave in a respectful and polite way towards your host who wants you to feel welcome. But imagine a guest turn your home into a garbage bin, dump waste, trawl nets, drive lorries straight through your living room, and blast it with sound waves of more than 200 decibel every 10 seconds for weeks. I expect this won’t be your favourite scenario for the living conditions in your “home”.

So why don’t we act in a different and more respectful way in those regions which are a home to whales? Okay, let’s turn to the language you probably expect to be “more appropriate” when talking about the oceans and marine life and call these “homes” “important habitat for marine mammals”. The way we act, or rather some kind of manual for behaving better than we did for decades, is kind of a starting point for discussing the concept of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Such MPAs are an instrument to give species we, humans, put on certain lists a place to be cherished and protected. Some of these species are whales, both baleen and toothed whale species, the latter including dolphins but also large sperm whales.

I just had the honour to attend on behalf of OceanCare the 5th International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas (ICMMPA) which was co-hosted by the ICMMPA Committee and WWF Greece and took place between the 8th and 12th of April 2019 in Messinia on the coast of the Ionian Sea. The spot was well-chosen, as when you look straight out at the sea what you see is the surface of the deepest places in the Mediterranean Sea: the Hellenic Trench.

The Hellenic Trench is up to 5000 metres deep and home to many species, but in particular to the deep diving sperm whale and Cuvier’s beaked whale. Both species are sensitive to noise and present in low numbers with the local sperm whale population counting just around 200 animals. And there are two major concerns about their well-being and survival:

The impact of ocean noise and the impact of collisions with ships

Addressing these concerns has also been the priority for OceanCare’s participation in the conference, which can be summarized more precisely as follows:

  1. Addressing concerns over planned oil and gas exploration in the Hellenic Trench. There are multiple requests for concessions by the oil and gas industry to search for and exploit potential hydrocarbon resources in those deep waters.
  2. Collisions with, predominantly, large container ships is the greatest single threat to the endangered sperm whales in the region. Speed reduction, avoiding certain areas and locating animals are some of the most pressing actions to be taken.
  3. Protecting beaked whales from intensive noise sources. Military activities and seismic surveys by the oil and gas industry pose severe threats to these strictly protected species and are still continuing (see point 1). Information was shared about strandings of beaked whales from different regions, including the Ionian Sea, the Canary Islands as well as the Argentinian Coast. The nature of these deep diving animals pose an enormous challenge to protecting it adequately including the fact that their home includes the deep waters of the high seas.

Coming back to the regional context, it is evidently necessary and decision makers have been called upon many times: to establish the Hellenic Trench as a marine protected area.

OceanCare acts in support of local initiatives, conservationists and researchers as well as via regional political instruments towards achieving protection of the Hellenic Trench – the home of sperm whales and the Cuvier’s beaked whale and many other marine species.

It was a great pleasure to work with the many experts at the conference, some of which we have already been working for years and some new passionate faces we will now strengthen working relationships with. Therefore, we are already looking forward to having the results of the ICMMPA 5 available for public use soon.

Of course there have been discussions about many issues more, including the sad fate of the Vaquita, research efforts to learn more about cetaceans around the world, the concept of and upcoming challenges to Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs), as well as some positive news about a slight recovery of the most endangered mammal species in the Mediterranean region: the monk seal.


Article by Nicolas Entrup