I am currently on my fourth month as an intern with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP) run by the Chicago Zoological Society based at MOTE Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. As a member of the research team we spend 10 boat days of each month in the field conducting population monitoring on the resident population of bottlenose dolphins. The method that the SDRP use is photo-identification based on markings on each individual animals dorsal fin. Sounds easier than it is. Most days in the field we are waiting for dolphins to breathe. Based on these observations we can determine their behaviors, socialization and mating patterns. Most of our remaining time in the lab is spent inputting, managing and analyzing all of this data. I have also learned how to drive a boat, mend fishing nets, identify multiple native fish species and tie sailors knots.
I am currently working on a project that is centered around human interactions with the wild resident bottlenose dolphin population. This project in particular involves following dolphins in a section of their range that has particularly high boat traffic for a prolonged amount of time (2hrs max.). While we are following this “focal” individual we are recording data which includes the animals respirations, 3 minute updates on its group composition, behavior, habitat as well as how many boats come within 500 meters of the animal during this 2 hour window. It has been really eye opening to see not only how many boats one individual might encounter in just two hours, but also how often the animals are actually disturbed by this encounter.
The reasoning for conducting this particular project is to update the “safe viewing guidelines” that are currently enforced as laid out by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This act has specific guidelines for cetaceans (dolphins, whales, and porpoises) that are not based on any real research but just arbitrary distances deemed safe for the animals by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The guidelines for dolphins require that people only maintain a 50m distance between their vessel and the dolphins while viewing. By following individuals of different ages and sexes is meant to ensure that all demographics of dolphins in the population are represented.
This project is ongoing and aims to directly impact the management practices of all boaters within the Sarasota Bay region who interact with native wildlife. By creating more specifically structured regulations there is also the potential to make them more enforceable. Currently there are very low levels of enforcement of these instances of harassment on marine mammals and proving harassment has occurred is incredibly difficult. This kind of research is not only informative on the behaviors of the animals but how we truly impact their day to day lives and how we can better manage ourselves while using their habitat for recreation.