A former SDRP fish-sampling intern’s perspective

When I arrived at SDRP as part of an undergraduate internship in 2007, I was assigned to a project that was investigating the effects of red tide on dolphin prey species.

At first I was disappointed.

I had been anticipating that I would be working closely with dolphins, but as it turned out my summer would be filled with long hard days of fishing with a large mesh net, called a purse seine. Boy was I in for a surprise.

I never could have anticipated how exhilarating it would be to sample fish in Sarasota Bay.

I spent, by far, one of the best summers of my life learning about boating, seining, and fish. I can still remember bringing up our first net and grabbing hold of my first pinfish, trying not to get pricked by spines while trying to get a good length measurement.

Dr. Damon Gannon was the lead scientists on this project, and he was truly an inspiring mentor. He, along with Elizabeth Berens and Sandy Camilleri, taught me the skills to sample, measure, identify species, and collect/organize data. He also shared priceless advice on applying and succeeding in graduate school. I am truly thankful for the skills, which I now use on a daily basis that I learned while an intern at SDRP. My summer in Sarasota introduced me not only to some amazing people I will never forget, but also to the boundless world of fish biology.

After that summer, I started orienting my course work towards fish biology, taking ichthyology, fish ecology, etc., eventually deciding I wanted to get a Master’s degree. I applied to Towson University to work with Dr. Jay Nelson, in his fish physiology lab in the fall of 2010. I somehow managed to talk him into working on an estuarine species he had never worked with in his lab before, the striped bass, more commonly known as rockfish.

We designed my project to explore what factors contribute to the hypoxia tolerance in this species. Hypoxia (2 mg O2 L-1) occurs annually in the Chesapeake Bay, which is an important spawning and nursery habitat for this species. Therefore, it is important for managers to understand how this commercially and recreationally important species responds and copes with low oxygen concentrations.

Like many budding scientists, I had heard that experimentation is not an easy road, but experiencing it yourself is another story. I had a few bumps along the way, but came out on the other side with some novel and exciting results. I am currently finishing up writing the final chapter of my thesis, writing manuscripts for publication (including a letter published in Science magazine in July 2012!), and preparing to defend in the next couple months.

In my spare time, I am applying to jobs that will allow me to continue researching and learning about the incredible things fish are capable of. I found my passion for research while with SDRP, I have honed those skills as a master’s student, and I hope to continue in research in the future. Someone once told me that “effective management is predicated on sound science.” I hope my research will contribute to our knowledge of how these creatures utilize the environment, to help us better manage human impact.

I am very thankful that I got to spend a summer fishing with SDRP. I am proud to say that I belong to the SDRP family, and I hope that one day I will find myself again on R/V Flip, heading out into Sarasota Bay to seine, watching the resident dolphins jump in our wake.


This article was published on page 41 in the January 2013 Nicks n Notches.

Do you value and support conservation organizations?  If so, please consider supporting the SDRP.  Become a member or donate to the SDRP.

Your contribution will help make the work possible.


Mote high school intern involvement in 2012 SDRP activities

Mote’s High School Intern Program first became involved with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program in 2007 as part of a grant from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Conservation Endowment Fund.

Students helped researchers collect sighting and behavioral data as well as photographs and video clips of Sarasota resident dolphins during weekend surveys when fishing and boating pressures on the dolphins was highest.

This year (2012-2013) Mote High School Interns will again help researchers collect video of Sarasota dolphins on weekends to contribute to SDRP’s video library.  Another objective of this program is to engage these interns to participate in coastal cleanups, removing potentially entangling lines, rope, and marine debris from Sarasota Bay.

Mote high school interns help clean-up
Mote high school interns help clean-up Sarasota Bay during the September 15th International Coastal Cleanup.

Twenty-three interns participated in such a cleanup on 15 September 2012 as part of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup and removed more than 12 bags of trash and fishing line from Roberts Bay.  During spring of 2013 these interns will create outreach activities about dolphins to be used in Mote’s education programs and at environmental festivals.  Dr. Randy Wells met with this most current intern group at the kickoff meeting on 11 September 2012 to share his background and words of encouragement for their involvement in SDRP activities as he too was once a Mote High School Intern!


This article was published on page 36 in the January 2013 Nicks n Notches.

Do you value and support conservation organizations?  If so, please consider supporting the SDRP.  Become a member or donate to the SDRP.

Your contribution will help make the work possible.

2012: Education continues to be a major component of our program’s activities, directed toward the general public, students, colleagues in the United States and abroad, and wildlife management agencies.

Public Education and Outreach:  We work to educate the general public regarding bottlenose dolphins and conservation issues.

We do this through public presentations at the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, and elsewhere, articles and interviews, and through volunteering opportunities.

We also produce books for the general public and students.  One of these, “Dolphins, Whales, and Manatees of Florida:  A Guide to Sharing Their Waters,” by John Reynolds and Randall Wells, was published in 2003 to fill a niche for teaching people about how to better appreciate and treat marine mammals in their environment.

Another, “Dolphin Man: Exploring the World of Dolphins,” by Laurence Pringle and Randall Wells, was published in 2002 to provide middle school students with an opportunity to learn about Sarasota Bay’s dolphins and about one pathway for becoming a marine biologist engaged in dolphin biology research and conservation.

An Immersion Cinema interactive program, “Dolphin Bay,” loosely based on our long-term dolphin research and conservation efforts in Sarasota Bay, is aired during multiple daily showings at Mote Marine Laboratory’s 165-seat theater.  Participants are able to investigate realistic threats to bottlenose dolphins in the imaginary bay, and attempt to resolve the threats for the animals by applying field research techniques and performing rescues.  The program is designed to entertain as well as educate young people, especially, about the threats faced by coastal dolphins, and about the means available to them for making a positive difference in the dolphins’ lives.  It tries to present a balanced selection of realistic alternatives.  The consequences of the choices made by the participants are shown through modeling of the Dolphin Bay population using the program “Vortex” (developed by the Chicago Zoological Society’s Dr. Robert Lacy), indicating the population size 50 years hence.

In response to an increase in dolphins taking bait, catch and discarded fish from anglers, we worked with NOAA Fisheries Service, Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, and fishing guides and anglers to develop Dolphin Friendly Tips intended to improve the experience of the angler or boater while enhancing protection for dolphins.  By making these cards available to boaters, anglers, and the general public, we hope that more individuals will become aware of the risks and legal issues involved when interacting with wild dolphins and choose to engage in responsible viewing and fishing practices when dolphins are present.  These “Dolphin-friendly fishing and viewing tips” cards were initially developed through the support of the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, with additional funding for re-printings coming from Marineland: Dolphin Conservation Center, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, and Fish Florida.  Distribution throughout Florida and the southeastern United States has been coordinated by the SDRP, and the United States Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary recently began distributing our cards to fishermen and marinas up and down the eastern seaboard. More than 304,000 cards have been distributed since January 2008, including 13,450 in Spanish. Please contact our website if you have any further questions or would like to help distribute the cards. We will continue to make them available at no cost to those who can effectively distribute them to people likely to come into contact with wild dolphins.  The cards are available in English and Spanish as downloads at: www.sarasotadolphin.org.

With the help of a generous donation from Wing and Jan Park, we also worked with Mote Marine Laboratory to update their marine mammal educational display materials.  One phase of this effort involved placing a display near Mote’s Dolphin and Whale Hospital that features the “Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins” public service announcement (developed in 2009 in part by the SDRP), presented alongside the list of 10 “Dolphin-friendly fishing and viewing tips” discussed above.  This display is located in a high-traffic area of the aquarium and highlights the dangers of feeding wildlife along with ways that members of the public can interact with wild dolphins in a more responsible manner. This PSA is also available online at: www.dontfeedwilddolphins.org.

Sharing Scientific Findings and Participation on International and Government Panels: Our efforts to provide information to our colleagues and wildlife management agencies continues, through publication of numerous peer-reviewed scientific articles, through invited presentations at various scientific conferences and through participation in national/international panels such as the Atlantic Scientific Review Group, Bottlenose Dolphin Take Reduction Team, the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group, the IUCN Reintroduction Specialist Group, and the Board of Governors of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, the largest association of marine mammal scientists in the world (Randall Wells, President, through June 2012).

International Training Opportunities:   The SDRP is a component of the Chicago Zoological Society’s Conservation, Education and Training group.  As such, we provide training opportunities for scientists and students from outside of the United States.   These sponsored training opportunities allow foreign scientists to participate in SDRP field and laboratory research activities and discuss with staff how such activities might be applied to their own situations at home.  Standardized research methodologies facilitate comparisons across research sites.  During 2012, we hosted five people for extended training periods:  Celeste Bollini and Yamila Rodriguez from Argentina, Camila Domit and Beatriz Schulze from Brazil, and Yujiang Hao from China. Celeste and Yamila each spent one month in Sarasota finishing work on the senior thesis projects they began in 2011 and assisting with lab activities. Beatriz spent 2 ½ months and Camila spent 1 ½ months in Sarasota learning about field and lab techniques.  Finally, Yujiang began his training in Sarasota in September and will work with the SDRP through January 2013. In addition, a number of international trainees participated in our 2012 bottlenose dolphin health assessment in Sarasota Bay, including three researchers from Malaysia, seven scientists and veterinarians from Brazil, two researchers from South Korea, and researchers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, and Spain.

Graduate Students:  As described throughout this newsletter, graduate students from a variety of institutions, especially the University of California-Santa Cruz, the University of South Florida, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the Medical University of South Carolina, Michigan State University, Duke University, the University of Florida, and the University of St. Andrews involve the resources of our program as they conduct their thesis or dissertation research.  To date, about 25 doctoral dissertation and 30 master’s thesis projects have benefited from association with our program, through field research opportunities or access to data, samples, or guidance.  During 2012, two doctoral students involved with our program, Glenn Dunshea and Peter Simard, successfully defended their dissertations. Currently, eight doctoral students and three master’s student are making use of resources provided by our program.

Undergraduate College Internships and Other Volunteers:   At the college level, we are fortunate to have access through Mote Marine Laboratory to high quality, dedicated undergraduate student interns who volunteer with our program for at least 2-3 months at a time (for more information on internships, please contact Katie McHugh, SDRP Intern Coordinator, at: kmchugh@mote.org).  During 2012, 16 interns and out-of-town volunteers provided approximately 7,200 hours of assistance to the program.  In addition to the five international training participants from Argentina, Brazil, and China described above, we also provided training to interns from outside the USA, including Russia.  Many of our undergraduate interns apply their training with the SDRP towards advanced study in the areas of marine animal conservation, research, and management, including five 2011-2012 interns who are now either graduate or veterinary students. During 2012, we also had 12 local volunteers assist with our surveys, prey sampling, and capture-release operations.


High School Programs:  We offer both formal and informal educational opportunities for high school students.  A formal curriculum, “The Secret Life of Dolphins,” was developed by the Chicago Zoological Society in collaboration with Mote Marine Laboratory, and focuses on high interest dolphin research ongoing at the two institutions.  The formal curriculum models a set of technology-based educational components, enabling students and teachers to work with real dolphin data from Sarasota Bay and Brookfield Zoo dolphins, using interactive data analysis software.  It has been designed to offer teachers and students a dynamic array of experiences and scientific inquiry tools that can be used together or independently, centered on an overall theme of understanding the nature of science and the role of research in conservation. The curriculum immerses students in scientific investigation. They can manipulate and analyze real dolphin data, while gaining an appreciation for the uncertainty of science. The downloadable curriculum unit (approximately 4 weeks long) includes background information for the teachers and classroom-based activities and lesson plans related to: 1) basic content on dolphin research, 2) computer software, and 3) a field trip to either Mote Aquarium or the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo.  The materials are available as downloads at no cost at this website.


This article was published on pages 34-35 in the January 2013 Nicks n Notches.

Do you value and support conservation organizations?  If so, please consider supporting the SDRP.  Become a member or donate to the SDRP.  Your contribution will help make the work possible.

The SDRP loses a dear friend and colleague: Bill Scott

In April of 2011 the SDRP community was saddened by the passing of its dear friend Bill Scott following his long fight with cancer.

Bill Scott on the water
Bill Scott on the water with a camera and his usual smile.

Bill had been a valued and beloved colleague since he first came to work with us as an Earthwatch volunteer back in the fall of 1990.

Over the next 21 years he and his camera became fixtures on SDRP projects ranging from the release of Echo and Misha to summer health assessments, from photo ID surveys to all five of our tagging projects in Argentina, as well as at various conferences around the world.

Bill’s leadership skills were much appreciated by those with whom he worked. He served as the President of the Bermuda Zoological Society. He was made a Vice President of Dolphin Biology Research Institute because we came to rely so heavily on Bill for his wise counsel based on his extensive experience in the business world.

But perhaps the title that meant the most to Bill was that of “Presidente” of the Franciscana dolphin research project, conferred on him by our Argentinean colleagues. Bill became enamored with the research and the people of Argentina (and vice versa), and he made extensive efforts to find support for continuing their ground-breaking conservation work. He and his loving wife Sandra personally made it possible for interns from Argentina to train with the SDRP in Sarasota.

Bill was the kind of person who made every project, every trip, and every shared meal more enjoyable just by being present. He was always ready with a funny story, a silly walk, a heartfelt toast, or good practical advice.Bill Scott (second from right, back row)

He was extremely generous with his time, his labor, and his resources, especially with people starting out in the research field. He will be remembered and missed by everyone who had the honor and the pleasure of meeting him.

And for those who ask the big philosophical questions like, “How does one best live life?” or “What sort of person should I aspire to be?” there is no better answer than “Be like Bill Scott.”



2011 International Training Perspective

I have been very lucky to participate once again in the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, but this time working on my senior thesis, which will allow me to get my degree when I go back to Argentina.

Yamila Rodriguez returning
Yamila Rodriguez returning from a hard day of purse seining.

I’ve always been attracted to how a simple algal cell could cause such a big change in the ecosystem. This is one of the reasons that I have focused my research on investigating how severe red tide blooms (caused by the toxic dinoflagellate Karenia brevis) affect the activity patterns and group size of the local dolphin community.

In order to study this, I used the data from regular  photo-identification surveys conducted for the SDRP during the 2000-2009 period in Sarasota Bay.

After the analysis I found that the activity patterns of Sarasota dolphins show changes during severe red tide events that mirror recent findings which focused on juvenile dolphins during a shorter time period.

More specifically, foraging activity decreased, which might be related to changes in fish abundance and community structure.

I also noticed an increase in social activity and group size during the red tide years, perhaps related to a shift in their diet which maybe requires different foraging strategies.

Finally, I observed that the dolphins’ interaction with boats became higher in those years with K. brevis blooms. This suggests that some animals may turn to anglers and boaters as a potential source of food or that they may bow or wake ride to save energy.

In conclusion, these results indicate that several red tide events have induced changes in the activity patterns of bottlenose dolphins over that time, showing that this species can change their habitual routine to adapt to the new conditions that K. brevis induces.

I’m very grateful for all the help I have received from my advisor Randall Wells and the SDRP’s dedicated staff. Without their support my thesis wouldn’t be possible.

Working with the SDRP has been a wonderful opportunity for me to learn from the best, and I’m certain that all the knowledge and skills that I have acquired are going to be very helpful in this magical career for which I’m just beginning.