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August 5, 2007

Crew Changes

BY: Xavier Pastor


© OCEANA / Jesús Renedo


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. The reunion with co-workers from the crew is always a good time to get up to date, to share stories, anecdotes and some laughs about last month’s events. We coincided at the same port with the Toftevaag, the sailboat from the early XX century from which Ricardo Sagarminaga and his co-workers from the Alnitak Project and the Spanish Cetacean Society (SEC) have been researching the Alboran Sea for two decades, and they are now an international reference on this sea’s environmental situation. Ricardo and Ana are also good, faithful friends and it is always a pleasure when we’re able to get together and comment on the environment, politics and even logistics…

At seven in the morning the next day, Sunday, the Ranger was on its way again. The first thing was to fill up the fuel tanks at the petrol station at port, and then set sail towards Alboran Island, our next destination for work. We sailed for six hours until we entered the fishing reserve (that was, in fact, full of trawlers authorised by the General Secretariat for Fishing… what a surprising definition of reserve…). We saw many cetaceans during the crossing. Apart from a group of approximately 30 common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), we saw another group, just as large, of Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus). But the real clincher came when we had the privilege of observing, and photographing, three specimens of allusive beaked whales (Ziphius sp.). – probably cavirostris), including one baby. These three endangered species seem to have found an ecosystem in the Alboran Sea where they can resist the gradual extinction they have suffered in the rest of the Mediterranean. If only for this reason, this area should receive very rigorous protection measures.

The first problems arise when we contact the military detachment in charge of guarding the island by radio to announce our arrival and notify them about our intention to submerge the robot and begin our documentation work of the ecosystems in the area. No one has told the military personnel about our arrival nor have they received a copy of the permit that we processed according to regulations, and for this reason they tell us they can’t authorise our activities. Communication between land and Alboran has never been easy, but on a Sunday in August at 4 in the afternoon, it is even more complicated. In spite of this, the detachment’s captain seems very interested and has made contact by mobile phone with one of the people in charge of the reserve and, after a series of conversations, we receive provisional authorisation from Almeria to begin working. Before leaving the peninsula, and in spite of having the written authorisation in our hands, we should have let the people in charge of the reserve know we were on our way. After re-reading the text carefully, we realise they’re right, and we’re the ones who are mistaken. Everything was put right.

We began our work with the ROV two hours late, on the edge of the continental shelf of the eastern side of Alboran. It’s the first dive since the robot’s propellers got caught in the lines of an illegal “recreational” longlinger in the Seco de los Olivos seamount, and which almost made us lose the propellers. Although the robot was thoroughly inspected by Manuel and Mauro, you always worry about how it’s going to behave after last week’s incident. Everything goes smoothly. For four hours, the ROV climbed the sandy slopes speckled with rocks from the 200 meters depth we had submerged it, up to 80 meters. Along the way, it registers fields of sea pens, holothurians, some star fish, colonies of ascidians hydrozoans, sponges, gorgonians, corals, polychaetes, hermit crabs, shamefaced crabs, caprellids and even a few lobsters. Amongst the fish we spot greater forkbeards, scorpionfish, monkfish, small-spotted catsharks, mullets, streaked gurnards, John Dory’s, perch, mackerel, flat fish… and all of these amongst shreds of laminaria ripped from some sea bottom not far from here (we still haven’t found any fixed to the sea floor) and some cone-shaped sandy hillocks at regular intervals that we must interpret. The effect of human action can be seen even in this landscape. We spot what look like scars from trawling, a few coke bottles, a bit of cable, a mooring line thrown away at sea and a lost longline… from which the ROV, operated by Manuel from the Ranger’s bridge, runs away terrified.

It’s getting late. We haul in the ROV and sail the few miles that separate us from the island’s dock, where we were authorised by the military to moor after receiving a warning: “the army is not responsible for the damage your vessel may suffer”. Later on, we will understand why this warning is more than justified. We are warmly received when we reach the dock. Various military personnel pick up the lines and help us tie up. Another one comes to collect the information about the crew. Finally, we receive a visit from the detachment’s captain, who comes onboard and we explain the details of the work we are carrying out. We are authorised to be on the dock, but for now we can’t visit the island. After dinner and a video, we go to sleep around midnight.