Divided we fall, together we stand and thrive. Incubo’s story, so far.

Life isn’t always fair, nor a fairy tale. But I promise, today’s story has its happy ending.

Our research team has been working in Samadai for a long time, we have been collecting photo-identification data of the Samadai spinner dolphins for almost a decade now, although not continuously. And the picture gets clearer and clearer every year. But this is OUR story and it’s not the one I want to tell you. Today story is far more interesting; it’s a snapshot of the Life in the Wild we were lucky enough to catch. So here it goes…

Once upon a time,

there was a young and bold dolphin, her name was a whistle. We couldn’t whistle on a keyboard so we named her Incubo. Incubo isn’t a very nice name for a little dolphin, in fact in Italian it means “nightmare”. But she used to be SO friendly and SO playful that it was impossible to work when she was around: she wanted all the attention and we were happy to please her. Such a nightmare to work in such conditions, don’t you agree?

Young Incubo associated with her mother (LEFT) and showing off (RIGHT) in 2005 and 2006, respectively. (Photographer: Marina Costa)

Young Incubo associated with her mother (LEFT) and showing off (RIGHT) in 2005 and 2006, respectively. (Photographer: Marina Costa)

It was November 2005 the first time we met her, back then we didn’t even know it was a she, we would have found out her gender only six years later. She was swimming with other dolphins, mostly other youngsters, like her. But other times she was swimming alongside a much older dolphin, her mom. Incubo’s mother was larger and more robust and darker in colouration. In 2005 Incubo was probably around four years old. During the next year she became more and more independent from her mother and more and more curious about her surrounding, us included. She visited Samadai almost every time we did and when she was not around we couldn’t help but notice it and think “mmhh that’s weird, where’s Incubo?”. She never failed to relieve us of our worries.

When we resumed our work in 2010, we were extremely happy to see that Incubo was still visiting Samadai as much as before! She was larger now and it seemed she had lost interest in us. Fair enough, she was a lady now. Not only that, in 2011 she was pregnant too! After about ten month gestation, Incubo’s baby made its appearance in July. Inseparable, Incubo’s and her baby swam and played together throughout the winter.

July 2011. Incubo and her newborn cuddling. (Photographer:Amina Cesario)

July 2011. Incubo and her newborn cuddling. (Photographer:Amina Cesario)

One day though, in March 2012, we spotted Incubo. Alone. She had lost her (probably) first calf. That’s actually pretty common in dolphins, still, we were saddened by this news.

That summer she spent a lot of time babysitting or swimming with the males. Life goes on, and the next summer, in July 2013, another baby debuted in Samadai on Incubo’s side.

2013. Incubo was seen pregnant in early June and with her second baby in July. (Photographers:Maddalena Fumagalli/Amina Cesario)

2013. Incubo was seen pregnant in early June and accompanied by her second baby in July. (Photographers:Maddalena Fumagalli/Amina Cesario)

Unfortunately, only one month later, we saw her coming in Samadai with a large shark-bite shaped injury on her peduncle and no sign of her newborn baby. We like to picture our hero interposing her own body between her baby and the shark, making every effort to avert such a loss. She got badly injured; her swimming was slow and somewhat unnatural. The injury looked severe and Incubo was losing a lot of weight.

August 2013. Incubo survived a non-fatal shark attack. Her second calf was nowhere to be seen.  (Photographer: Amina Cesario)

August 2013. Incubo survived a non-fatal shark attack. Her second calf was nowhere to be seen. (Photographer: Amina Cesario)

We felt sad, useless, and impotent. We were not sure we would have seen her the next year. Right after the attack the other dolphins were not grouping around her, but after a few weeks some of the old Incubo’s friends started to join her again.

Petting behaviour resumed shortly after Incubo got injured. (Photographer: Amina Cesario)

Petting behaviour resumed shortly after Incubo got injured. (Photographer: Amina Cesario)

The pod is family, it is a safety net. Spinner dolphins rely on their companions for feeding: they cooperatively circle their preys at night-time and when the preys are condensed in one huge ball they sprint trough it and hunt squids and small fishes. Hence, considering Incubo’s injury and her inability to swim normally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the group shared the preys with her.

One year later, 2014, new pictures coming in: she looked perfectly healed! Nature is tough… and so is Incubo! Towards the end of the summer she also carried the typical toothrakes marks that males leave on female bodies when engaging in mating behaviours. We felt relieved and hopeful.

June 2014. Incubo injury healed perfectly. (Photographer:Amina Cesario)

June 2014. Incubo injury healed perfectly. (Photographer:Amina Cesario)

But our survivor can’t stay far from troubles! In September, together with a few other dolphins she got trapped within the shallow waters of the Marina of Marsa Alam. Luckily they were spotted and led out back in the open sea (read the details here). HEPCA team we salute you!

Now that you all know Incubo and hopefully share the same attachment to her as we do, you too will be cheering and celebrating with us our latest news!

When I received the images collected this year, without even knowing it, I was looking for her…

Incubo is back, safe and sound! And not only that, she has a new baby, a new hope, a new challenge. Go Incubo!!!

July 2015. Incubo is back together with her third newborn. And she keeps her distance! (Photographer: Micol Montagna)

July 2015. Incubo is back, together with her third newborn. And she keeps her distance from the researcher! (Photographer: Micol Montagna)

And if divided we fall, well, together we don’t only stand, we thrive!

Group of spinner dolphins resting in Samadai. (Photographer: Amina Cesario)

Group of spinner dolphins resting in Samadai. (Photographer: Amina Cesario)


Posted in Cetacean, Samadai, Wildlife | Tagged ,

Sharing spaces: homeowners are responsible for damage caused to the common area

Marine mammals are among the most fascinating creatures we could think of, and yet, despite love and fascination, our activities are the main threat to their survival and wellbeing.

Wait a sec. Things we (human beings) do normally, usually, on daily basis can harm marine mammals?


A few examples.


Unsustainable fisheries lead to depletion of fish stocks, and this limits the amount of fish or seafood available to us, but also to predators such as dolphin and seals. Empty seas can no longer sustain the food requests of marine mammal populations with negative consequences on their health and wellbeing.

Also, beside taking out prey, fishing gears don’t have the ability to discriminate between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ catch and often nets return onboard with undesired turtles, seals, sea lions, dolphins caught unintentionally. Nonetheless, caught.

In the big blue open sea, what are the chances that dolphins accidentally end up in a net and die? It can’t be that many, can it? Well, the number varies greatly according to the area and the type of fishery, sure, but just a figure: purse-seine tuna fishery in the Eastern Tropical Pacific is responsible for an estimated 6 million dolphin deaths since its inception the 1950s. 6 million. Shocking, isn’t it? This is one of the most dramatic cases (read more here), but we now know that this is not a threat to face lightheartedly: Vaquita and Maui dolphins are on the edge of extinction mainly because of fisheries and by catch issues.

We have almost fished them all out, it doesn’t matter whether intentionally or not (what matters is that we keep on fishing them out! Insane).


Seismic exploration, underwater drilling, military exercises employ underwater sounds that result harmful to dolphins and whales. Unbearable noises permeate the waters and can be heard for miles, the only way to escape the noise is to reach for the surface: a rapid ascent (which might leave the animals temporary or permanently impaired), or a stranding.

Tourism operations, chemical pollution, solid waste, ship traffic, intentional  captures, among others, are daily widespread threats we tend to underestimate.

Basically, marine mammals leave in a big blue minefield in which the ‘traps’ we disseminate overlap with other traps and/or other natural conditions and have unpredictable effects on animals’ distribution, abundance and wellbeing.

The map shows how Chinese white dolphins have and will be impacted by multiple development works and other threats in Hong Kong waters (WWF-Hong Kong - http://www.wwf.org.hk)

The map shows how Chinese white dolphins have and will be impacted by multiple development works and other threats in Hong Kong waters (WWF-Hong Kong – http://www.wwf.org.hk)

Solution: create safe ‘trap-free’ (or ‘low-trap’) areas. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) aim at pursuing conservation through the proper management of activities within a delimited spatial area.

The process for the establishment of a protected area is a mixture of science and politics. It requires certification of the area ecological value, proper reporting to relevant agencies or bodies and framing according to current legislation frameworks. This last step often goes through renowned conservation institutions recognized by governments or conventions signed by member states.

Neat process: identify the area, inform the people who have decisional power, and obtain a law. Done. Of course, it is neither simple nor neat.

Properly designed MPAs reflect the understanding of the past, present and possible future of an area and its human and non-human inhabitants. Also, they integrate knowledge of interactions and relations within and between the various components.

First of all, proper MPA design requires good knowledge of complex ecological features of ecosystems, species and processes occurring in the area and in connection with the area. This knowledge is long and demanding to obtain but it is crucial: it allows evaluation, assessment and predictions about current and possible future status of a species, population, habitat.

Moreover, MPAs have to take into account the local socio-economic, political and governance context: MPAs management limit, cap, control stakeholders operation, thus it is likely to remain hopeful theoretical intervention ‘on paper’ if not shaped in order to be feasible and efficient on ground.

Everything is connected, and an MPA planner needs to know and understand the full picture.

Challenging indeed, especially that part concerning the “human” component. The plan, design and implementation of area-based conservation involve many actors (scientists, legislators, managers, local communities, enforcing agencies, etc.) whose interests are often conflicting and difficult to conciliate.

So, say that we are interested in an area where cetaceans occur and human activities are intense. Setting up an MPA there might protect the animals and contribute to the sustainable use of the resources!

First, how do we know if this can really become an MPA? What features should it have? What tools and expertise should we employ to investigate that? Second, how do we plan its management? How do we maximize the chances that the animals we are trying to protect will actually benefit from the institution of this MPA?

And here it is where organizations such as the International Committee on Marine Mammals Protected Areas (ICMMPA) come in the picture.

Since its establishment in 2006, “ICMMPA has been a unique forum to bring together MPA managers, decision-makers, scientists and other stakeholders to exchange information, strengthen partnerships, and figure out the way forward to improve MPA management and marine mammal conservation in the context of such areas.

ICMMPA has held its 3rd Conference in Adelaide (Australia) last November. Amina and I were there for this intense 3-day of interesting and articulated presentations and discussions on various case studies with contributes from all over the world.

Be it the context of the Pelagos Sanctuary, the MPA recently established in Bangladesh (amazing work!) or the case of spinner dolphins in the Egyptian Red Sea (oh yeah!), talks have highlighted strengths and challenges encountered, as well as shared tools and perspectives to enhance our (scientists, conservationists, managers, etc.) ability to actually protect the marine environment, and marine mammals in particular, through the definition and establishment of sound conservation initiatives.

The big names, those who lead, organize, plan, decide internationally were there. We (the rookies) had the chance to sit and brainstorm with them on various issues, providing our -small, limited, naive- experience but mainly listening mesmerized.

In particular, this year we were discussing the establishment of a new formal and official classification to identify “Important Marine Mammal Areas” worldwide: what ecological criteria should define them? How should they be incorporated (or not) in existing schemes?

Not a trivial matter. Giuseppe Notarbartolo and Erich Hoyt are co-chairing a dedicated task force, and we look forward to hearing from them about ideas emerged during the conference as they might change the way we will do conservation in the next years.

The world around us is changing, we need to change too. We need to update our strategies and conceptions; we need to better adjust our science to today’s requests and interests; we need to challenge our most rooted believes, to look back at failures, acknowledge them and repair (or substitute) weak links that have caused them. We are losing biodiversity at an outrageously high rate, we cannot afford to continue.

We create the problems and, at the same time, we are the solution, so we can’t help but keep trying our best to mitigate or eliminate our negative impacts.

In the big wide world, as in all condos, we should be held resposible for damage caused to common areas.



Posted in Awareness, Conferences

Life of Semola

It happened a few months ago.

An average normal summer evening at home in Hurghada.

It all started as a fun entertaining activity and a way to get all our (yet to be expressed and appreciated) storytelling talent out.

‘Let’s write a story about dolphins.’

‘Yeah! Let’s make it a play!’

Overall aim was to convey some scientific and conservation messages to the kids in the south, but how? What format? A play, an interactive play, seemed the most adequate.

And so Semola and his story were born.

Semola is a spinner dolphin calf, he leaves in Samadai and learn life the hard way: when the group resting in the lagoon is disturbed by the visit of the vroooms (speedboats) and the 4-eyed fish (humans), all of a sudden, in the chaotic confusion of the interaction, he finds himself alone, left behind. He then ventures in the dangerous, dark, unexplored open sea looking for his pod and, by meeting turtles, sea birds, morays and other marine animals, he discovers facts about pollution, coastal development, fisheries…and himself too.

Put down the script and pictured the way the play could look like, I sent the draft around for comments.

To make a long story short, the most dedicated people I know – Ali and Suzanna from Roaya and the newborn Society of Environmental Awareness Supporters (SEAS), NGOs based in El Quseir – took the script, translated it into Arabic and got the kids from the Roaya summer club to work on it.

We premiered a few days ago in El Quseir with a beautiful performance that was just the perfect conclusion of an intense week of costume making, rehearsals, and art work.

Those kids were amazing. They painted, assembled and memorised everything. Eager, curious, smiling. A bunch of enthusiastic 9-12 years old under the lead of inspired and passionate people.

I was blessed to find myself there with Catherine and Anjelika from Bokra Sawa ( you guys keep up the good work!), a fine talented artist such as Julien Solé, Stephane Pachot (watch his Cafe’IN, terrific project!) and Salma Khattab, our travelling teacher.

The result was a fresh, colourful, shiny experience.

11 prep panel draft 11 prep panels 11 rehearsal in ngo 12 prep costumes 13 prep location 14 meeting 15 prep venue 16 rehearsal at venue 17 prep costume moray 18 rehearsal 30 scene2 30 scene3 30 scene4 30 scene5 30 scene6 40 the end

I am immensely grateful to Ali (you are the best!), Suzanna, Amira, Rana, Mohamed and all the volunteers at Roaya; thanks also to all those who have supported and helped in El Quseir.

Anji, Julien and Nadia, thank you for sharing your energies, love, art and creativity.

Once more, this was supported by a grant from the Rufford Small Grant Foundation, main sponsor of our research and a series of educational side projects.

In cinemas in 2017 😉


Posted in Awareness, Samadai | Tagged

Season finale: last expedition, last episode

Third and last episode of our highlights onboard the Red Sea Dolphin Project – Satayah Survey 2014.

New volunteers embarked, and the RSDP life starts again: a bit of training for data collection, long hours observing dolphins and the way people interact with them, smiles and fun on the boat.

(It does look like a sort of a dolphin research version of the “Groundhog Day”, doesn’t it? I love it!).

This was the last expedition of the season and it is always quite sad to pack and go back to life on land (= office work! And all the data to process and analyse!!).

We are now happily settled in our universities and figuring out how to transform the huge amount of information we have collected in these last years in coherent, comprehensive and original knowledge of spinner dolphin in Egypt. Exciting times ahead!


A massive thank to assistants and crew for making this season memorable, Valentina Cucchiara (Liquid Jungle Media) for distilling it in awesome video pearls (with lovely closing lines..watch the credits until the very end), University of Otago, the Rufford Small Grant Foundation, HEPCA, Boomerang for Earth Conservation and our crowdfunders for making it possible.


Happy Karma!


…aaand in the next posts: our Australian adventures in Adelaide at the 3rd Conference of the International Committee on Marine Mammal Protected Areas!!


Posted in Cetacean, Expeditions

Summer memories – Episode 2

Thanks to Vale (Liquid Jungle Media), our best memories come to life once again!

Another short fun and informal video blog on the Red Sea Dolphin Project – Satayah 2014 Survey is out.

In this second happy episode we meet the new members of the team, we see them collect data on dolphin behaviours, explore places and tastes in a rare day off and fall in love with Satayah and its incredible natural beauty. As always, in the madness that long exposure to the sun can trigger.

Take a few minutes off and indulge in astonishing Egyptian marine scenes…and learn more about the very intrusive tourist approaches marine fauna has to tolerate. How do you feel about that? What does define a “bad” or a “good” approach?How can we prevent bad interactions?

We look forward to hearing your opinions and ideas people! Drop us a comment, a Facebook message or email madda@boomerang4conservation.org.

We would like to thank the University of Otago, the Rufford Small Grant Foundation, HEPCA, Boomerang for Earth Conservation and all those who have supported our crowd funding campaign.

Stay tuned, Episode 3 is coming soon!



Posted in Uncategorized

BEC crowd funding: last call!


as you might have seen and read lately on these pages, the season is going great and, despite boat mechanical technical issues, the fieldwork goes on brilliantly.

Also, a beautiful script for a fun play to be presented to kids in El Quseir is being translated in arabic; we are preparing presentations for guides and operators to be delivered by Amina soon…and working on our data and a couple of publications on Egyptian dolphins.

Busy busy busy days, but all is going super great.

As you know, one of the NGO supporting us is Boomerang for Earth Conservation (www.boomerang4conservation.org) and they have launched this crowd funding program to enable you to come onboard (in spirits) and support our activities by making a donation.

The campaign is still running, click the following to find more info and visit the donation page. The donation process is quite easy and friendly, just remember to specify that your amount goes to the Dolphins of the Red Sea project.

A postcard, a digital image of our beautiful spinners and a certificate in return.

You don’t want to miss the chance to get one of these amazing postcards, do you?


Make your donation now and help us share the link!


Madda and Amina

PS – In case you missed it, have a look at our video blog!

Posted in Awareness, Cetacean, News

Video Blog!

We are immensely thankful to Valentina Cucchiara (Liquid Jungle Media) for putting together this awesome video blog about our first expedition to Satayah.

Also, many thanks to Birdsong and the Eco Wonders, this song is really cool!

Enjoy..and stay tuned! More episodes to come!


Subscribe to this blog and follow us throughout the season

Support our projects by making a donation.



Amina and Madda


Posted in Cetacean, Expeditions, News