Friends of the Earthwatch

The prow of the Toftevaag, Malaga. (JAMES FLINT)

The prow of the Toftevaag, Malaga. (JAMES FLINT)

Ever wonder what Greenpeace activists do when they tire of chasing whalers round the Arctic Circle in inflatable powerboats and scaling North Sea oil platforms at night? Ever asked yourself what's the eco-warrior equivalent of growing up and getting a job? Ricardo Sagarminaga and Ana Cañadas are finding out. They're running an Earthwatch research project out of the strip of golf hotels and marinas that's Almerimar in Southern Spain, trying to discover why there's been such drastic reduction in the numbers of dolphins and other cetaceans in the area, a project due to last, not a few weeks or months like most Greenpeace actions, but ten years.

Wandering around the deck of the Toftevaag, the 100 year, two masted Norwegian fishing vessel that Ricardo and Ana bought for 1 krona from the Norwegian government back in the early 'nineties and restored themselves, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the two of them had been obsessed by dolphins since childhood: they've given all the crew members bronze or silver dolphin tails which they wear on thongs around their necks; Ricardo has fixed his varnished and polished dolphin carvings to every available mounting point onboard; and Nano, a marine biologist finishing a PhD at the University of Madrid and the most recent recruit to the team, has a dolphin tattoo on his shoulder (I think Nano would like to be a dolphin - he tells me a story about the first time he met one, swimming in France, like other men tell the tale of how they met their wives). When they put the Toftevaag at the service of Earthwatch, however, dolphins weren't in their minds at all. But en route to complete a different mission off Tunisia the news came in of a massive cetacean die-off near Almerimar, and Ana and Ricardo were told to change course - of their boat and their lives. I don't think either of them were sorry.

Flying in to Almería, the nearest airport, is a strange experience. Out the window, slotted like motherboard components into the grey rock of the barren Andalusian landscape below, are fields. At least, you think they are fields. But they are somehow too regular, too neat. You get lower and lower, the mystery isn't solved. It's only when you transfer from plane to car and hit the highway that you find out - these are fields, but they are entirely encased in polythene sheeting to stop soil and moisture being eroded by wind and sun. These gigantic greenhouses jostle for space along the coasts with ribbons of resorts and apartment buildings that are being outputted from AutoCAD-equipped computers and turned into reality in apparently impossible numbers, stretching from the coast right back into the quarries carved into the mountains to provide the building stone. Along the top of the ridges left behind cars slowly move, glinting in the sun like beads of restless mercury.

Ricardo tells me that much of Almerimar is owned by Russian mafia interests, and as if to emphasise this element of danger and mystery a heavy halo of haze, strongly reminiscent of an LA smog, surrounds the place. Perhaps nothing lies beyond the mountains, perhaps there is a cliff that drops away forever, just over there, at the edge of the sea. It's very like The Truman Show, Spanish-style - that's what we keep joking as we trip from marina to our hotel (which has its own irrigated golf course, out here in the desert) and back again across the terracotta tiles of apartment block colonades, passing hidden fountains and palm beds dropped in as an architectural reference to the Moorish Alhambra in nearby Granada. Though here the fountains are dry and the cool passageways and dusty squares are more deserted than the ancient fortress ever gets these days, with its constant flow of tourists.

But - and just as in The Truman Show - the apparent isolation is an illusion. The greenhouses feed markets far to the north and west; they are draining the aquifer that lies beneath this apparently waterless desert, and they flush vast amounts of pesticides and fertiliser out into the sea. If anything is isolated it is, strangely, the dolphins - trapped within the Mediterranean the genetic stocks of the striped, common and bottlenose varieties that frequent these shores cannot be easily replenished like those of their cousins out in the Atlantic. Caught between twin rollers of chemical pollution and over-fishing, the dolphins are the one closed system here, and they're being slowly crushed to death.

At least, this is the conclusion that the Toftevaag team are coming to after seven years in the field. As principal investigator, Ana oversees data collection everytime the Toftevaag puts out to sea. The team collect oceanographic data such as salinity, plankton, cholorophyll and algae levels that are used to help calibrate satellite images as well as taking and meticulously analysing videos and photographs of all cetaceans - not just dolphins but also pilot and fin whales - that they meet. Photo-identification is important - Ana and Ricardo need to be able to identify by sight as many of the dolphins in the area as they can, as tagging and biopsies are frowned upon as unnecessarily interventionist techniques. But filming is fun - with its sails and quiet engine and inflatable speedboat towed from the stern the Toftevaag is fully equipped to chase dolpins around the sea, tracking them with hydrophones, videoing them with underwater cameras as they surf in syncronised groups up and down the invisible wall of the bow wave. And in this they are helped by groups of volunteers who have flown out here to spend a holiday contributing to the project - on this particular trip the majority of them are high school teachers from the US, who have combined vacation pay and education grants to raise the necessary funds to make it to Spain.

Apart from one or two, most have never sailed before; on the other hand, nearly all have been an Earthwatch volunteer somewhere before: monitoring endangered butterflies in the Brazilian rainforest, for example, or helping with a shore based dolphin project in Florida. Running eco-holidays is the way that Earthwatch projects get the manpower they need - some of them last up to 25 years, meaning that a permanent staff beyond one or two core people is impossible to fund. Anyone can be a volunteer and with 150 field research projects in 50 different countries currently running there's plenty of options to choose from. Certainly the crew here seem to be having the time of their lives - and they're all spellbound by dolphin magic conjured by the Toftevaag. There's a faraway look in the eyes of the women, who wear dolphin earrings or T-shirts or tails on thongs like the crew, while the men keep taking me aside to tell me in hushed, revential tones about another example of Ricardo's extraordinary prowess as a captain.

Ricardo is certainly god-like. Kind of a cross between Jamiroquai's J.K. and Captain Haddock he's a beautiful man in his early thirties, lean and keen with light golden curls running up and down his sun-cured arms and legs. Half-Spanish half-Dutch he speaks six languages, four of them perfectly, and captains the Toftevaag with an easy grace. To hear him talk about dolphins is to want to leave your life behind and follow him. Ana, his wife, is equally beautiful and intelligent - she looks like a gypsy girl from a Flake ad, but one with a PhD in biology from the University of Madrid. Between them they have two designer children with tousled blond hair who are growing up onboard and who are happier at sea than on land. In a six foot swell, while I'm throwing up over the side, one of them - Carolina - totters happily along the deck clutching several plastic animals that she hopes will make me feel better, although she's having problems working out if she should address this strange man in Spanish, Dutch or English. I think she's about four.

The picture of Ana and Ricardo as perfect eco-couple is completed by the fact that it's dolphins that they're involved with. Dolphins are the pin-ups of the environmental movement, up there in the favourite animal stakes along with pandas and the lynx. And Earthwatch is not averse to exploiting their media value - that's why, after all, they've paid for three journalists to travel down to Almerimar. But on the other hand, this is no head-in-the-clouds New Age project; it's serious science. Ricardo is scathing about the way in which research is killing animals, especially marketable ones. 'The amount of money that's been spent on the lynx,' he says, 'they could all have been living in mansions with pools by now,' and he goes on to tell me what happened to the monkseal. 'There was only one colony left, so some big grants came up and fifty scientists descended on the place to "study" it, only to get surprised when 80% of this human-shy community then died off.' Whale watching is another pet hate - the tourist boats that ferry Rohan-clad sightseers out to sea, especially off the coast of North America, are now so numerous that they are upsetting whale migration roots and damaging the animals' hearing with the vibrations from their engines.

The reality is that for all their hype, dolphins in the wild are little understood. Only last year was it demonstrated that their echolocation abilities are so finely tuned that they can recognise by sight an object previous identified only by sonar, and their communication repetoire - probably second only to our own - remains a mystery to us. Despite the santised portraits presented in movies like Flipper and Free Willy, they have a wildly promiscuous sexuality, tending to mate one female to four or five males. That the common perception of this is as some kind of gang rape (which it clearly is not once you've seen the videos of the process taken by the Toftevaag team) shows only that as a culture we haven't yet got beyond pining our own labels on animal behaviours to which they're simply irrelevant.

So this is the Toftevaag's mission: to understand these creatures and their environment, and to use this knowledge to leverage the creation of a protected zone inside Spanish waters. It's a typical Earthwatch project: tightly focussed, with the aim of achieving small but real environmental gains in the long term. Very different to Greenpeace, described by Ana as 'an enormous organisation that only ever deals in bad news.' And that's the answer to my initial question. What activists do when they grow up is they change from being pessimists into optimists, from consiousness-raisers to scientific observers, and they sail out in their beloved ship searching for a space for their cetaceans, and themselves, in what's fast becoming an overcrowded world. And the most amazing thing is, you can be part of it.

- Timeout Magazine, April 2000