Grampus Monitoring Project

The Mediterranean’s most mysterious cetacean

The Risso’s dolphin or Grampus is the least-known resident species of cetacean in the Mediterranean Sea. It is an impressive and mysterious top predator that most residents of the Balearics have never seen and know nothing about.

In November 2021 it’s IUCN status in the region was changed from Data Deficient to Endangered.

An emblematic species for the Balearic Islands?

This species is present in different locations of the Mediterranean, but researchers surveying Balearic waters have realised they are more abundant around the islands, in particular areas such as the Cabrera Archipelago National Park and waters to the south of Menorca.

Surveys such as the ACCOBAMS ASI (2019) also highlight the Balearic Islands as an area of interest for the species, and the Proyecto Mediterráneo back in the early 2000s suggested the Emile Baudot escarpment as an important location. However, thus far this species hasn’t been given too much attention from scientists.

ALNITAK is currently gathering as much data as possible, and each sighting adds more information to an ever-growing database.

The Mountains of the dolphins

If we removed all the water around the Balearics we would see breathtaking canyons, cliffs, and underwater mountain ranges, all of which are key to the oceanographic and ecologic characteristics of offshore Balearic waters.

The Risso’s dolphin is seen mostly in depths of over 500 metres, and generally near steep bottoms such as escarpments or cliffs. Here, they feed on a variety of cephalopods (squid and octopods) taking advantage of the daily vertical migration of the “deep scattering layer”. 

Indicator for MPAs

Studying certain species can give us insight into an entire ecosystem. Since 1989 ALNITAK has used “top pelagics” (cetaceans, marine turtles, sea birds, tunas, etc) in this way. 

The Risso’s dolphin may prove a useful indicator for open sea marine protected areas such as the Cabrera Archipelago National Park. But furthermore, biodiversity hotspots such as seamounts are grossly understudied and underrepresented in European MPA networks. Information on an open-water teutophagous cetacean could add value to these much needed knowledge gaps.

Always on the lookout

Research vessel Toftevaag is the main ship looking out for this dolphin, however other organisations in the area and adjacent study sites (such as Valencia, Murcia and Catalonia) also gather information. One of the big objectives of this project is to merge and compare these databases to learn more about this species’ distribution, abundance, habits, etc in the entire Spanish Mediterranean.

On board Toftevaag, ALNITAK researchers and OceanCare volunteers look out for this species and use PhotoIdentification (a type of mark-recapture method) to gather information. Photographs of the dolphin’s dorsal fins – unique to each individual – are vital to our work. In addition, the slow-moving research vessel often means the dolphins keep doing their natural behaviours while we are keeping our distance collecting data.

“Todos por la Mar”

This is one of ALNITAK’s mottos, involving everyone from fishers to navigators in tangible conservation measures. 

Objective 5 of our 2022 road map is Citizen Science: Develop a network of responsible opportunistic boat-based observers who can collect basic data and imagery to contribute to our database and photo-ID catalogue 

In terms of Risso’s dolphins, we believe we can get important Citizen Science contributions from a variety of sectors, but also involve journalists, documentary filmmakers, artists, teachers and others to communicate our project, and make this dolphin’s presence and value known in the area.

Above all, happy dolphins

ALNITAK always prioritises animal welfare, which is also why it’s vital to communicate how the general public should interact with wildlife such as cetaceans. Apart from being protected by Spanish Law, we should strive to promote a “best practice” interaction in which vessels don’t chance their course when they see dolphins, and in particular respect groups of females and calves.

Having happy dolphins is a realistic goal that we can aim for as a community, and something responsible and informed navigators can also monitor when researchers and authorities are absent. Being proud of our marine heritage, and taking care of these oceanic tribes which are at the top of the food chain, is a starting point that we should aim for.

Underwater photograph of Risso's dolphins in the Balearic Islands

A long-term study using the Risso’s dolphin as an indicator and umbrella species in the Balearic Islands

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