Are you planning a whale or dolphin watching trip? You are probably thinking about going to the Atlantic or Pacific oceans to find whales and dolphins.

But there is a wonderful area much closer than you might think and it’s right in the heart of Europe – The Cetaceans Pelagos Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is located in the Mediterranean Sea, offshore three different countriescoasts: Italy, France and the Principality of Monaco.

Let’s discover more about this place’s history, ecology, and biodiversity and why conservation is so crucial here!

How did the Sanctuary come about?

The story of the Sanctuary first begins in 1986, when scientists, NGOs and local elected officials spoke out against driftnets and accidental capture of cetaceans in the Corso-Ligurian Basin. These threats to such iconic species, even at that time, drove the Italian government to create an area of biological protection in 1990 (Decree 18/07/90).  

Since then, driftnets in the high seas were prohibited in the Italian, French and Monegasque territorial waters in the Ligurian Sea and the importance of this area for cetaceans has been recognised. These animals have a key role in the marine ecosystem considered threatened and endangered even by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), which was gradually recognised by the three countries.  

Although the area is crucial for these animals, the threats are countless. A few examples are ship strikes, bycatch, collisions, and underwater noise. On 25th November 1999, the Mediterranean Sea Mammal Sanctuary, which we now know as the Pelagos Sanctuary, was finally established. 

The Pelagos Sanctuary includes the coastal waters and pelagic area comprised of the headlands of the Giens peninsula to the Fosso Chiarone in southern Tuscany. It extends across the waters of a number of islands, including Corsica and northern Sardinia as well as smaller islands such as the islands of Hyères, Liguria, the Tuscan Archipelago and the Strait of Bonifacio. 

The Sanctuary covers an area of 87,500 sq. km and 2,022 kms of coast. 

Pelagos Sanctuary graphic

What kind of cetaceans live in the Sanctuary

The Sanctuary hosts all Mediterranean cetaceans species: fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris), long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas), Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) and striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba).

How the food chain works in the Pelagos Sanctuary 

When we talk about this area, we need to jump into applied marine ecology to better understand the reason why all these giants want to live there and why they are crucial for this ecosystem. There is just one answer: the food chain.  

The Sanctuary is a unique area, in which very special ecological conditions coexist, without which, the richness in nutrients and in phytoplankton would not exist. Phytoplankton plays the primary productivity role as the engine that sustains the entire trophic chain.

This balance of physical-oceanographic and biological conditions provides great biodiversity for the entire area. Some unforgettable oceanographic phenomena examples of this are upwelling, enrichment from coastal waters, and frontal zone. Even the dome-shaped structure favours primary productivity!  

Phytoplankton (bottom-up controller) triggers the entire food chain that sustains all the secondary productivity represented by zooplankton – the main krill Meganyctiphanes norvegica, cephalopods – Todarodes, Histioteuthidae, and fish like Engraulius, Merluccius that make up the diet of cetaceans in the Mediterranean. Giants play a key role as top predators (top-down controllers). 

At this point, it is easy to think that primary productivity has a key role in supporting the Sanctuary food chain.  

Pelagos Sanctuary - Food Chain Graphic

How can we behave with the ocean giants

Cetaceans play a key role in the marine ecosystem. They are top predators, nutrient pumps and flag species. For all these reasons, cetaceans are important for maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem. The aim of the Sanctuary is to protect them and their habitat against all sources of disturbances. A few examples are ship strikes, underwater noise, bycatch, disturbances by tourist activity, etc.  

For the protection and mitigation aims, Pelagos defined the “Code of Good Conduct” as an eco-responsible approach for marine mammals. All countries under the Pelagos flag applied this conduct code.

Observing cetaceans in their natural environment is commonly called “whale watching“. Badly managed, whale watching can be a source of disturbance, while well managed, it becomes a very good tool for environmental awareness.  

What are the key things to know about the Pelagos Sanctuary?

And how can we help them and their habitat? 

Let’s summarise the important themes about Pelagos:

  • The Pelagos area has great importance in terms of marine ecology, it is an important area for eight cetacean species in the Mediterranean Sea. All of these species are endangered according to the IUCN Red Lists 
  • People who hang around the Sanctuary, whether for work or leisure, play a crucial role in this key habitat for cetaceans in the Mediterranean Sea

Everyone can give a contribution to preserving this wonderful place and its giants. Here are some tips for sea lovers and cetacean watchers: 

  • Read and get informed about the habitat you are going to visit and the species that inhabit it
  • Be aware of the animal threats, which species are endangered and why they are endangered. All the activities on the sea have an impact, it is better to know about that to take the right steps and behaviours
  • Try to choose your whale watching company tours with awareness, get informed about the whale watching mission, their attitude, and if they get experts on the boat during the tours (marine biologists, cetologists)
  • Know about the code of good conduct of the habitat you are going to visit, make sure that the Pelagos flag is on! 

Whale done and enjoy your responsible whale watching in the Pelagos Sanctuary! 

Pelagos Sanctuary

Geographic area of the Pelagos Sanctuary

Alice Briola is a marine biologist who has worked on several projects about marine mammals conservation, animal care, and education all over Europe. She is now the founder and manager of the BioNet project, a travelling project that focuses on doing network SUSTAINABILITY together, through conservation, collaboration, education and promotion.