Protecting the Mediterranean’s Ecosystem Onboard Grimaldi Lines

by Maria Betteghella

A traveler in Italy boards a passenger ferry bound for Tunisia and spends time with the researchers expanding our knowledge of the Mediterranean’s marine life.

A long queue of Tunisian vans heralds a long journey. Some drivers are praying shoeless on a small carpet, bored passengers kill time in video calls. Most people drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and speak a cryptic language. Countless bicycles, fridges, and sinks jumble together over precarious roof racks, while lazy tires stumble under the weight of family-size nomadic lifestyles. After hours of waiting, passengers manage to get through passport control and finally onboard, ready to depart.

I’m embarking on a Grimaldi Lines passenger ferry named Catania. The maritime company is a crucial partner of the cross-border research project Life Conceptu Maris, an initiative that is scaling up marine conservation in the Mediterranean through a complex network of environmental institutions. Thanks to the Naples-based zoological station Anthon Dohrn, I have been invited to join a scientific cruise, which translates into a marine mercantile passage to Africa. 

Photo credit: Gianluca Tesauro

We are about to set off for Tunis from Civitavecchia’s harbor, a journey that will take us around 18 hours. The weather forecast is not promising, but the cruise has already been postponed once, and the project relies on winter data. A three-meter wave that makes you either sick or excited starts hitting the hull as soon as I reach the upper deck, so I’m forced to grab the handrail. This is the bar’s level, and I can hardly stand on my feet when I spot the research team in the lounge area. We are the only Italians onboard, and although I’ve grown familiar with the hermetic tune of Tunisian conversations, I feel like a guest in someone else’s living room.

The researchers greet us warmly, and before I know it, I’m learning all about Grimaldi Lines ships serving as observation platforms for a continuous monitoring of cetaceans, sea turtles, seabirds, whales, and other macro marine fauna, maritime traffic, and floating marine litter.

“Commercial vessels are a great way to collect data,” Roberto Crosti, a researcher from ISPRA, explains. “We carry out systematic surveys along 16 cross-border transects, from Tunisia to the Strait of Gibraltar. The most sighted species are fin whales and striped dolphins, followed by bottlenose dolphins, sperm whales, and other cetaceans, with some occasional sightings of killer whales.”

Photo credit: CONCEPTU MARIS

I slowly get acquainted with the frantic rhythm of a passenger vessel. Sailors and janitors move deck up and deck down to organize rooms and kitchens, and passengers wander on the bridge in a dark, roaring night. We are journeying hundreds of miles off the Italian coast. The wind is rising and so is the intimacy with the sea.

“Grimaldi’s crew has helped us set up a floating laboratory in the engine room,” Roberto continues. His eyes are filled with excitement while he recalls the first marine water sampling attempts. “We needed to collect water during navigation. We’ve set a water intake approximately five meters below the surface, and we use a derivation pipe to intercept marine cooling water from the engine’s upstream.”

ISPRA – the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research – has developed a specific protocol for ferry-based environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling, together with the University of Milan Bicocca. The eDNA analysis helps localizing endangered species, and by studying their distribution, researchers are identifying hotspots and ecosystems’ structures. The academic group is coordinated by Prof. Valsecchi, and onboard we meet Alessandro and Roberta, two of her scholars.

Photo credit: Gianluca Tesauro

“Thanks to the ferries, we are able to access remote offshore locations with high biological value for our research at low operating costs,” Roberto concludes, the lounge area getting increasingly crowded. “Besides, commercial vessels’ high traffic frequency facilitates repeated samplings along the same route, or even concurrently along different ones, which is a great asset for scientific protocols.” 

I order a coffee at the bar. All around, Tunisian men either pray or watch Italian commercials on the ferry’s television. A kid starts speaking to me, but my astonishment must suggest that no, I’m not Tunisian, and I can’t say who’s the most disappointed between the two of us. The coffee shot is warm and quick, and right after it Alessandro and Roberta invite me to join the next water sample collection. I wear a pink pair of earplugs I’ve brought with a just-in-case intention and climb down the ferry’s staircase.

As we reach the lower decks, I realize the noise is not the only increasing feature. A sudden heat forces me to take my jumper off. Now I know we’re at the ship’s lowest level. Lip reading seems to be the only communication option down here, so we stop talking. The engine’s roars fill every inch of the labyrinth we’re exploring, and the heat turns the air into a thick, palpable matter. We climb down to an even lower space and finally reach the eDNA laboratory.

Photo credit: Gianluca Tesauro

We’re still navigating through high waves, and although the ship’s balance is higher at lower levels, we still lack stability. The researchers seem used to working under these conditions, so I empathize with the photographer. Drop after drop, the sea water fills up three large flasks, and the researchers carefully manage 45-micrometer-wide filters to capture invisible underwater particles. Once back, the eDNA will be extracted, amplified, and sequenced, potentially revealing a whale’s passage or dolphin’s presence.

On the other edge of the ship – vertically speaking – the monitoring actions take place. The next morning, I reach the control station where ISPRA and Anthon Dohrn’s researchers are busy observing the sea surface in a meditative silence. No sign of interest at the horizon so far; only marine litter floating occasionally here and there.

The control station is the vessel’s highest point and where command is. The constant buzz of a radio station tuning in and out of sailors’ messages makes the soundtrack of this maritime temple, where officers work to keep navigation smooth and attend to the captain’s orders.

Professional observers are positioned on both sides of the control station and use a standard protocol based on distance sampling. Both Anthon Dohrn’s marine turtle specialists and ISPRA’s observers use a dedicated GPS to record the survey track, marking starting and ending points and sightings’ locations. Visual monitoring is subject to weather conditions, the spring season offering the best odds for spotting marine species’ transit.

Photo credit: CONCEPTU MARIS

Observers communicate through walkie-talkies to keep track of sightings. The control station enjoys a 180-degree sea view, an infinite tapestry of possibilities. I stare at the enormous amount of water all around, and while I get lost in a dreamy mood in which underwater giants follow the vessel from the depths, researchers focus on details. A black dot is easily mistaken for a marine turtle by the non-professional observer, and Marianna and Roberta – Anthon Dohrn’s researchers – are so familiar with the species’ swimming habits that I feel left out from their strong connection with the marine environment.   

Eugenia sits quietly on the right-hand observation spot. She’s ready to record the monitoring data on a paper chart, which will later be transposed on a digital platform. Researchers have been collecting data on vessels since 2007, when the pilot survey track took place in Golfo Aranci, off Sardinia’s coast.

“The Tyrrhenian Sea abounds of submerged mountains that have an effect on currents and species concentration,” she explains. Eugenia is a PhD student at La Sapienza University, and her research is addressing cetacean and sea turtle distribution and movement in the Mediterranean.

While we stare at the horizon, she tells me about Marsili, Europe’s largest active volcano, another submarine giant that from now on will kindle my imagination. Located 110 miles south of Naples, this enormous sea mountain is 3,000 meters high, with a base 70km long by 30km wide. No wonder it may cause a potential nutrient rise – Eugenia explains – a phenomenon which may attract marine species and affect their spatial ecology in the Southern Tyrrhenian Sea.

Photo credit: Gianluca Tesauro

Hours later, heavy rain forces researchers to stop the survey. Reaching Tunis feels like awakening from a dream, but the vessel only stations a few hours in the harbor before journeying back to Salerno. Tunisian passengers are eager to land, while another long queue of tracks is waiting to board. After hours of meticulous security checks, the Tunisian police seem satisfied with the embarkation procedure and set us free.

I hear the engine roaring once again. Another night awaits ahead. The waves are calmer now, and so is my spirit. Our last day onboard is crystal clear, but late winter weather makes sightings unlikely. Marianna shouts for attention when she spots a turtle, but I reach her too late and stare at the sea swallowing all signs of marine life.

A bittersweet feeling grows while we get back to land. I wish I had more time to encounter other Mediterranean creatures, so I dream about training my sighting skills onboard the next Civitavecchia-Barcelona, a route that crosses the cetaceans’ sanctuary, or maybe venturing to Gibraltar to experience the view of a majestic orca. 

As we approach the Amalfi coast on our way to Salerno’s harbor, I gather on the bridge with Roberto and the rest of Conceptu Maris’ team. There’s no time for goodbyes, as a see-you-onboard is the unsaid farewell amongst us sea lovers. I set foot on the ground and look back at Grimaldi’s vessel, resting quietly at the dock. The giant will soon wake up, offering new passages to explore the underworld’s mysteries.

Cover photo credit: Gianluca Tesauro

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