My curiosity in marine mammals was aroused after repeated sightings of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins from fishing boats on the west coast of India, and on reading and seeing anecdotal reports of several other marine mammals rarely studied or even hitherto unknown from the region. Soon after, I participated in a pilot survey of coastal small cetaceans, but dearth of the required resources, experience and expertise (marine mammal research in my country still being in the nascent stage) made me hesitant to attempt dolphin research on my own. I then happened to read about the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program and the internships they offer, and realised that this would be the opportunity I was looking for.
Coming to the U.S. from halfway across the world, I was a bit apprehensive about life in Sarasota (this was my first visit to the States and the first time I travelled to a foreign country on my own). During the journey from home to Sarasota I was besieged by the worry that my lack of practical experience would pose a hurdle in my internship. Those worries were soon put to rest when I met the genial staff at SDRP and my very friendly co-interns. Needless to say, the following twelve weeks with the SDRP at Mote Marine Lab were an immensely valuable learning experience.
Although I had participated in the field-based work of similar dolphin surveys in India, I acquired many additional skills here – essentially the “backroom” skills – photo-ID, data management, an introduction to using GIS software, and organising fin images for an ID catalogue. The prey base survey project (read “going fishing”) was an amazing experience too- not just to know about the kind of fish preferred by the Sarasota Bay bottlenose dolphins, but to explore the immense fish diversity of the region too. Getting to know more about the kind of research done with the prey base data, such as studies into prey selection by dolphins and deductions regarding the caloric value of certain areas for dolphins, was eye-opening. The huge library of marine mammal articles available at the lab was an added advantage that I cannot be too grateful for. And a big thank you to Dr. Randy Wells, Dr. Katie McHugh and Krystan Wilkinson for their kind guidance and for having patient chats with me in reply to all my questions!
While at Mote, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to learn to drive boats- thanks to Aaron, Katie and Jason. I also had great opportunities to chip in at other departments at the Lab- the time
spent at the sea turtle hospital, osteological collections, and assisting a turtle necropsy were valuable experiences to take back home. It would be amiss on my part to not mention the free time I spent indulging in two favourite hobbies- bird watching around Lido (courtesy of Aaron) and treating my tastebuds to Sarasota delicacies (thanks to Jason)!
I hope to put to good use the knowledge I acquired from the SDRP, towards marine conservation research in India. The coastal waters of India suffer from unregulated, unsustainable commercial fishing, the result of relatively recent introduction of large-scale mechanised fisheries. My aim in the near future is to systematically study the interactions between commercial fisheries and cetaceans, and to suggest fishing community-invested measures for conflict mitigation and conservation. Simultaneously, by increasing public and stakeholders’ awareness of the marine mammal diversity in Indian waters and projecting them as flagship marine animals for sustainable recreational activities, such as responsible whale and dolphin watching, it would be much easier to protect marine areas, whilst providing employment to the coastal population currently dependent solely on fisheries.
This article was published on page 27 in the November 2014 issue of Nicks n Notches