Sailing for science

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Seabirds are mesmerizing creatures, but we don’t know a lot about them here in Cyprus. Species and their abundance, distribution and population trends have yet to be recorded and understood. Though a lot may think that this is not the case due to the frequency of seagulls in the coastal areas of Larnaka or Latchi, especially near fish taverns, our most recent survey suggests otherwise.

Together with our project partners, Enalia Physis Environmental Research Centre, we headed out on a seven-day survey at sea as part of our MAVA-funded project to understand marine bycatch. Our main goal during this survey, one of the many to follow, was to spot and identify the seabirds of Cyprus. Our on-board observers were trained and ready to adopt the field methodology of ‘European Seabirds at Sea’ (ESAS). This survey makes up for only a part of the three-year project but is an important pillar for gathering knowledge and data for the seabird life of Cyprus.

Using a ‘Jeannaeu 42’ sailing boat, we set sail from Latchi harbor following a zig-zag offshore route to Pafos, Pissouri / Lady’s mile, Zygi, Limassol marina, Konnos and, lastly, Larnaka. Each day comprised of at least eight hours of seabird monitoring, with two observers covering alternating two-hour shifts at a time. With the wind in our favor, our 6 am wake up calls were all we looked forward to!

Yelkouan Shearwater © T. Hadjikyriakou

Our first day out to sea was welcomed by a group of three common bottlenose dolphins that performed a spectacular jump right next to our boat. With this sudden burst of excitement, we were hopeful we would experience more such events. Success! Casually afloat, a flock of c.200 Yelkouan Shearwaters Puffinus yelkouan made their appearance off the area of Nea Dimmata. The Pafos to Pissouri/Lady’s mile leg, was dissimilar in seabird occurrence, yet sporadic appearances of Scopoli’s Shearwaters Calonectris diomedea and Yellow-legged Gulls Larus michahellis were the norm. Reaching Zygi on the fifth day, and sailing through the fish farms, a flock of c.100 Yellow-legged Gulls was met in circular formation on set buoys. Some individuals displayed feeding behavior, making the most of the aquaculture plants.

A sudden flap of wings in the offshore waters of Larnaka cove kept us in suspense, followed by a grand splash of (what we think were) dolphins. A great way to finish off a full and intense week of surveying.

While we have still a lot to learn, the survey has laid the foundations for future surveys and ways to improve our efforts and methodological approach to identify and protect seabirds and their habitats.

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