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Pelagos & the Principality: the state of the sea

Beyond the speedboats and motor yachts, the waters off the coast of Monaco are home to a rich marine ecosystem in which many thousands of dolphins, whales and tuna flourish. At least they do today: 30 years ago they had all but left and by 2050, experts warn that our seas could void of life.

What a life it must be to have the sea as your office, the helm as your desk! At 28 years of age, David Gamba is one of the lucky few to have found early on a truly fulfilling career. Working for the Yacht Club de Monaco, David splits his time between managing the organisation’s whale watching excursions and the Fédération de Pêche en Mer that he founded last year.

Monegasque by birth, David grew up in the principality, but spent many of his childhood summers in Spain, fishing off the coast of Galicia with his maternal cousins: “Fishing is one of the best ways to understand the environment and to learn how to respect the sea.” He considers himself to be lucky to live in Monaco, a nation so culturally and historically connected to the sea. The principality is also part of a large marine reserve, the 87,500km² Pelagos Sanctuary, that has been under the protection of France, Italy and Monaco for more than 15 years. It represents 3% of the Mediterranean Sea and stretches from the Giens peninsula near Hyères in the Var to the north of Sardinia and Fosso Chiarone near Tuscany on the west coast of Italy. Around 8,500 species live in its waters, which equates to between four and 18% of the world’s known species even though the Mediterranean Sea as a whole only represents 1% of the ocean’s surface.

When David told his school teachers he wanted to be a fisherman after school they were understandably skeptical. It goes without saying that it’s a dwindling industry unless you’re willing to join a fleet of commercial fishing vessels. He trained in the field of luxury hospitality before listening to his heart and pursuing his dream at the age of 21. Now a fully-fledged captain, he mans the 12-metre Narwhal, which he uses for the Yacht Club de Monaco’s whale watching excursions.

Sperm, fin and pilot whales have all been spotted during these trips out, often 25 to 50 kilometres from the coast, but they can be seen even closer on rare occasions: “I once witnessed a whale surfacing just 600m from the port in Monaco.” Orcas have been seen in the Pelagos Sanctuary, near Cinqueterre, as well as Cuvier’s beaked whales just off Genoas, but not by David himself. Other familiar creatures include striped and bottlenose dolphins as well as sea turtles, mobular rays, a range of tuna and 75 shark species. It’s estimated that there are 30,000 striped dolphins alone in the Pelagos Sanctuary and 300,000 in the Mediterranean, making it one of the most prolific species. In 2017, David recorded 63 sightings of fin whales and 14 sperm whales. The numbers match well with population counts: Pelagos is believed to be the home of 900 fin whales, but only 300 sperm whales. 


He knows many of the animals well and can identify them by sight, such as Flucker, a male fin whale who is missing half of his caudal fin: “I saw him three times last year alone, but we still don’t know what happened to his fin.” His species are the second biggest whales (and animals) in the world after the blue whale. They can live for more than 100 years, grow to over 20 metres in length and often reach weights of 48 tonnes.
“Unlike sperm whales, which can dive for up to two hours and go to depths of 1,00 metres, fin whales stay underwater for 

The best time to see these mammals is between May and September, as from October to April, the larger cetaceans head south to southern Italy, Greece, Malta and the North African coast. Even now, sightings are far from promised and David can’t predict what animals are out there: “I never know what I’m going to see.” He doesn’t use any hi-tech equipment to track the creatures down, preferring to rely on more traditional methods.20 minutes at most before they need to breathe,” explains David. While the sperm whale feeds predominantly on squid in the Mediterranean (it’s the largest toothed animal on earth), the fin whales searches out krill between the surface and 200 metres. “Another distinguishing feature is their blow. For sperm whales, it’s more of a cloud that comes out at 45°. The fin whale shoots upwards.”

“A fin whale needs between 300 and 1,000kg of krill a day so looking for food sources is one way,” he explains. Congregations of sea birds or even dolphins and schools of fish suggest food is in the water so I use them as an indicator. That said, you can think you’re in the middle of a dead zone, with no life or activity, then boom! There are whales and dolphins and tuna everywhere!” 
28-year-old David has been working with the Pelagos Sanctuary, which has its headquarters in the principality, for around five years now so has built up a great understanding of its environment and challenges.

Learning from mistakes

“Humans are a great source of trouble,” he admits. “So many cetacean deaths are caused by cruise liners and freighting vessels. At best, it’s two a year in the Pelagos Sanctuary, but more pessimistic figures are 20. Two of the busiest shipping routes in the Mediterranean cut through the Pelagos Sanctuary, but it would be impossible to ban all commercial shipping. We can, however, teach these boats and their crews how to be more responsible.” The data David records during his excursions is sent directly to the REPCET (Real Time Plotting of Cetaceans) software system. Once a whale or other sizeable marine animal is spotted, the user identifies it using the App and notes its exact location. That information is then sent out to commercial vessels such as ferries and tankers so that they can try to avoid a collision.

“The bigger boats aren’t always able to change their course at the last minute so this information can help them prepare in other ways, such as slowing down if there are numerous animals in the water,” David explains. “Ideally, boats should never cut in front of or behind a cetacean, but travel at a parallel distance of at least 100m and a maximum speed of five knots.”
Private vessels, such as yachts and scientific boats, don’t receive the live locations of the creatures so as to avoid big numbers of craft showing up and disturbing them. “Plastic is the biggest problem the sea and its inhabitants are facing,” he says sadly. “We’re in the process of suffocating – of killing even – our planet. Anyone who says otherwise is simply uninformed.”

The worst offenders? Balloons, according to David. “I thought we’d spotted a turtle on a recent trip,” he continues, “but as we approached, I realised it was a turtle-shaped balloon. The irony is all too present. We have to find a way of reducing our reliance on plastic. It’s too late to reverse the damage already done, but we need to be thinking about the future. By 2050, UN scientists have predicted that all life outside of heavily protected zones will be gone. Other experts have warned that within the next 20 years, there’ll be more plastic in the world’s oceans – in terms of weight – than fish.” 

David’s portrayal of the state of the sea is frank, but not cynical and he admits that there are some developments in the Pelagos Sanctuary to be optimistic about. “30 years ago, there were no tuna left in these waters,” he explains. “The fishermen had taken everything. Now we are seeing baby tuna in this part of the Mediterranean, which means they have established breeding grounds somewhere on the Ligurian coast. In 2017, I saw three fin whales calves. The mothers of these infants obviously think the water is clean enough and plentiful enough in which to raise young.” 

David Gamba on his recent expedition to Antarctica

David recently returned from an expedition to the Antarctic with the Yacht Club de Monaco and says we havthings to lean from the world 60° South: “You can’t throw anything overboard or put anything into the waters, and they’re pristine as a result! It should be like that everywhere.”  


Whale watching with the Yacht Club de Monaco
Five-hours excursions departing from the Yacht Club de Monaco
From May to the end of September 
Prices: €120 for adults, €80 for 11 to 16 years & €40 for six to 10 years
Breakfast & lunch included
Family packages available