Having always been interested in (at times you might say slightly obsessed with...) dolphins since I was a little girl, the idea of spending 2 weeks with CIRCE sounded perfect. Whilst I wasn't really sure exactly what to expect, some time on a boat getting overexcited with every dolphin sighting (for me the whales were just an added bonus) and some time in the office being generally useful and furthering research into these fascinating animals sounded like just what I was looking for.
It turned out to be exactly that and I managed to get even more excited about the whales than the dolphins and conjour up an embarrassingly level of enthusiasm during the time spent in the office learning all about stable isotopes and echolocation.
We were restricted by 'bad' (as an English person used to torrential rain, I should clarify in Strait of Gibraltar language this just means 'foggy') weather as to when we could go out on the boat but still managed two full days (13 exhausting but exhilarating hours) and two half days over the 12 days I was with CIRCE. The first time we went out, there were 3 of us research assistants and 5 people who actually knew what they were doing so we just got hang about on the boat looking for whales and dolphins. We were incredibly lucky and saw bottlenosed dolphins, striped dolphins and pilot whales all on our first day!
The next time it was just Philippe and the 3 of us so we played a really active part in what was going on; taking it in turns to steer the boat (with varying levels of success), sit up in 'the camel' - the seat on the top of a 4m ladder where you spot cetaceans with the help of binoculars - and take photos of fins for the catalogue of individual animals in the Strait. Again, luck was on our side and we added common dolphins to our list of sightings.
Definitely the most exciting day out on the water was when Philippe noticed that one of the whale watching boats was heading at great speed in a straght line towards the Atlantic. He suspected this was because they were following a fin whale so we shot off at full speed to catch them up. Soon enough there came a cry of 'Blow!' from the camel and it became apparent that were were actually about to see two fin whales on their way through the Strait from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Once they were in sight, everyone leapt into action to record the frequency of the blows and prepare a crossbow with a dart that would take a biopsy of skin and blubber to be sent off to the lab for analysis.
There followed three hours of pursuit of these incredible creatures - both almost twice the size of our boat - noting every time they surfaced and trying to keep track of them when they dived down for up to 10 minutes at a time, sometimes emerging several hundred metres away, sometimes so close we got soaked by the spray from their blow! In addition to this, Carolina was trying to steer the boat precisely the right distance from the whales so that Philippe could fire the crossbow at exactly the right second to pierce the skin just below the fin. After 4 failed attempts and some tricky manouvering to reclaim the dart from where it was floating in the whale's wake, they eventually succeeded amid much jubilation! Unfortunately we didn't manage to get a biopsy from the other whale before we entered a wider part of the Strait and they escaped us (and by this time we were 5 hours' sailing from the port of Algeciras where we'd set off from!) but everyone was delighted to have one sample and - geek that I am - I found it fascinating to see how it was divided into different pieces to be sent off to the lab where they'll be able to determine the whale's genetic make up and what it's been eating!
On the days when we weren't able to go out on the boat, we were taught a lot about the different cetaceans that are either resident in the Strait or simply migrate through, as well as the research projects being undertaken by CIRCE to learn more about everything from the impact of a virus on the pilot whale population to the potential impact of a new harbour on resident populations. We also had the chance to do some work on the catalogue of individual dolphins and whales - learning how to compare the nicks in their fins with those already on record. It was really interesting to see how the (literally thousands of!) photos we had taken were being used and to appreciate just how many hours of squinting at a screen goes into the development of the catalogue.
In addition to the excitement of being on the boat and the more academic focus of the time spent in the office, we also got to experience Spanish culture first hand and - whilst I'm assured it's not always like that and we just happened to be there for a particuarly mad week - emerged with the impression that Spanish culture is largely about not returning to the office after lunch, endless jugs of sangria/beer/rebujito, bonfires on the beach and dancing until at least 5am!
In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with CIRCE. I learned a lot, fulfilled a childhood dream of seeing dolphins close up in the wild, discovered a new passion for pilot whales and laughed a lot (in about 7 different languages) in the company of some fantastic people.