Volunteering with Dolphins in Croatia
Pula, on the coast of Croatia, was a city I knew nothing about. Croatia had never been on my list of places to go; it’s not that I didn’t want to go there, I just hadn’t looked into it. As a flew over the turquoise seas, rolling rich green hills and the stunning cliffs, I felt like I was discovering a new and secret place- a place I should have discovered ages ago.
On my first trip to Croatia, I was volunteering with dolphins! I had never seen a dolphin up close and have spent the greater part of my adult life telling people not to swim with dolphins. After spending this much time educating people about dolphins, I was pretty excited to be volunteering with a conservation program. We flew over villages first settled by Celts, over cliff-side mansions, yachts and some of the bluest waters I have ever seen. They call this area the Tuscany of Croatia, and I was in love at first sight.
The very first day on the program, I got into a motorboat and went into the open Adriatic Sea. We sped along the shores looking at the Venetian style architecture, delicious beaches, climbing roots and island lighthouses. Was this place paradise? It certainly seemed like it was. And then I saw my first dolphin. It was beautiful and I made a silly noise, and then I had tears in my eyes. Dolphins in the wild. Playing, hunting, clicking to each other and living free lives. It was beautiful and it was why we were here.
We were a small group of volunteers taking part in a dolphin conservation program called Vivamar. I was there on behalf of Animal Experience International, to see what kind of work they did, if it would be a good fit for our volunteers and because I wanted to see a dolphin in the wild. Over the next few days we saw hundreds of dolphins in the wild while we toured the shore by boat. We saw them jump and play. We saw them swim with their babies below the deck. We saw them zzzzzap fish with their sonar and go after schools of fish as intelligent and mighty hunters. After seeing this, I can’t imagine any joy could come from swimming with a dolphin in a tank- for the human or the dolphin.
Was this place paradise? It certainly seemed like it was.
Why was a dolphin conservation group in Croatia, anyway? Because the dolphins in the Adriatic Sea are running out of food. Unsustainable fishing practices have sent populations into severe decline. Other human pressures (hunting, sound pollution, harassment from tourist boats) have already caused the demise of two dolphin species who used to share the sea with the common bottle-noses we see in Croatian waters. As we patrolled the waters off the coast of Europe, the dolphins we saw were so thin that their ribs were showing. It is heart breaking to see animals so hungry, and it’s even worse knowing our species is responsible.
Volunteering with dolphins was necessary because we were needed to help count and identity populations of dolphins. Knowledge is power and right now we don’t know the exact number of dolphins in the Adriatic, making it hard to advocate for them. Counting, identifying and photographing them doesn’t just help individual animals, it helps the whole species in Europe. As volunteers we also bear witness while showing a positive and non-aggressive presence in these seas. The more volunteers that are here for conservation not tourism, the more volunteers who are here to work WITH not against fisherman, the better our chances are to save these mammals. We were not there to intimidate. We were there to work together in cooperation and friendship with local fisherpeople- people looking to feed their families, just like the dolphins.
We saw dolphins jump and play. We saw them swim with their babies below the deck. We saw them zzzzzap fish with their sonar and go after schools of fish as intelligent and mighty hunters.
We did all of this and still managed to take time to swim in the cool waters off the shore, snorkel around the reefs, eat gelato and visit those Celtic cities I drooled over as I flew above them. Croatia is mysterious and friendly. The cool breezes off the sea made everyone relaxed in the evening as we cooked together, had beach-side drinks and spoke with the locals about their love of dolphins and the shoreline they valued so much.
The entire week was spent looking for dolphins, finding dolphins, taking pictures of dolphins, trying to swim like dolphins, being in awe of dolphins and then helping them in our small, important way.