An Internship with a Porpoise

This semester I have had the pleasure of working at the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, a 501 c(3) non-profit focus on the study of bottlenose dolphin in the northern Outer Banks through non-invasive photo identification. This research is mainly for the purpose of studying dolphins population patterns and ecology, health, and behavior of dolphins in the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary System. My mentor was Jessica Taylor, who completed her undergraduate studies in Marine Sciences at Rutgers University and received her Masters in Environmental Management at Duke University. She taught me so much about dolphin behaviors and patterns and about the methods of dolphin research. The research done in our organization contributes to the Mid-Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Catalog, or MABDC, and our studies are compared with to research done in other areas along the East Coast.

My internship was pretty much divided into two parts. Every other Wednesday, as well as the first few Mondays in the semester while it was still warm, I would go out on the boat to assist with dolphin tours or dedicated surveys. The dolphin tours were open to the public, and attracted many tourists. I would be in charge of recording the data, including environmental conditions like salinity and water temperature, as well as how many dolphins we saw, their behavior, and any recognizable fins. Jess had the professional camera and would photograph the fins any time dolphins were spotted.

One of the dolphins we spotted on a tour. This one isn’t quite as distinguishable by the dorsal fin. That is one of our rival dolphin tour boats in the back.

Dolphins are actually uniquely distinguishable by markings on their dorsal fins, which is how they are matched in the catalog. The dedicated surveys were on a much smaller boat, and were only with 3-5 people, including some volunteers for the organization. They were specifically for recording any sightings, while the opportunistic surveys were for the public and helped to raise money.

An example of the data sheet that we took out for every survey.

Every Monday as well as some Wednesdays when there weren’t survey, I would work on the computer with the photos from previous dolphin sightings. The first step once the photos were uploaded to the computer was to crop the photos to only include the part with the dorsal fin and sort the photos by assigning it a letter starting with A. Each fin was sorted for each sighting in this manner, with repeat fins being sorted with the same letter. This sorting would be verified by another researcher. The next step took place in FinBase, the automated software used for fin matching. On FinBase I worked on some photo quality grading, where numbers were assigned based on different aspects of photo quality. Then I matched the fins to existing fins in the database, which contains over 800 unique dolphins.

Left: Another dolphin spotting! Right: This is Onion, one of the most recognizable dolphins, because of his many scars, likely due to rubbing up against the bottom of boats.

I really enjoyed getting to learn more about the research of marine mammals, something I had very little experience with prior to this semester. I am currently compiling my research into a paper explaining the work I did and explaining its relevance as well as how the methods could be applied to future studies. I also recently recently volunteered at the Outer Banks Shrimp Cookoff, a fundraiser for the OBXCDR, where chefs from 8 restaurants in the Outer Banks competed to win the best shrimp dish. I worked at the Dolphin Outreach booth with former intern Liz Mason, educating people about what we do and helping to sell T-shirts. It was a great event and raised over $9000 for further research! All in all, I had an awesome experience this semester and learned a lot; it introduced to the many doors involved in the research career and I am very grateful for it.