When I began my 16-week internship with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP) in January 2014, I had just graduated college with degrees in marine biology and environmental studies, and was queued to start postgraduate study of humpback whales in the fall. I had always been interested in working to protect marine mammals in their natural habitats, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to study humpback whales as an undergraduate. I knew I wanted to focus my graduate work on humpback behavior and conservation in foraging grounds. The only concern I had was that all of my marine mammal field experience had been with seals and sea lions on land-based studies. Unfortunately, I had never set foot on a boat without getting seasick, which is problematic for studying whales in the wild! Though I had read what seemed like hundreds of papers on the methods of cetacean research and conservation, I felt ill equipped in practical experience—on the water, observing and studying whales.
My time with the SDRP changed all of that. It was clear on the first day of my internship that the SDRP is run like a well-oiled machine, with everyone collaborating to add to the decades of data and discoveries about the resident dolphins. I was thrilled to be a part of the team, and quickly found my footing not only on the (mercifully flat) water, but also behind a camera, on a fishing boat sampling prey, and in front of a computer analyzing thousands of photos of dolphin dorsal fins. While at the time it felt so specific to the program, later I realized how many of the skills I learned during my internship were applicable to what I was planning on studying in grad school.
The whales I will be studying that live in well-known populations are photo-identified, much like the dolphins in Sarasota Bay. Unlike the dolphins, their surfacings are much more predictable and slower-paced, which will make getting an identifiable photo for long-term studies much easier. The measures the SDRP implements to study human interactions with the dolphins in the area are directly applicable to the human interactions whales face from boats and fishing vessels in their foraging grounds. These encounters are necessary to assess for conservation of the whales and management of the areas they migrate to for food. The time I spent on the water not only equipped me with my sea legs, but also experience steering boats and navigating waterways through animal sightings. These skills are necessary for whale tagging during my masters program. Working with the SDRP was a life-altering experience, which has equipped me with the knowledge and experience I need to progress my research in whale conservation. I look forward to strengthening and refining these skills and am thankful for the experience the SDRP provided me.
This article was published on page 27 in the November 2014 issue of Nicks n Notches