An Internship on the Water: My Experience with OBX Center for Dolphin Research

Growing up on the Outer Banks, I spent every summer on the beach watching the dolphins pass by every once and a while. Sometimes if we were lucky, we could watch them ride the waves or playfully splash in the distance. I always loved watching them, but I never really knew much about them or even thought of them inhabiting any other place than the ocean. Early this semester as I looked through past internships to decide what I would like doing for the next few months, an opportunity with the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research really stood out to me. I knew that I wanted to do something involving research or field work, preferably something where I could be outdoors. The start of the semester was filled with uncertainty and new challenges for all of us. We really had no idea what to expect from our internships due to COVID, but luckily I was able to have a safe, hands-on experience while many others had to do everything remotely.

This semester, I worked alongside Jessica Taylor—the executive director of OBXCDR. When the weather was suitable on the weekends (which unfortunately was not very often), I was given the opportunity to join her on boat surveys on the Roanoke Sound to locate and photograph bottlenose dolphins. On the surveys, I was the designated data-recorder while Jess would photograph their dorsal fins. I would write down observations and details about the dolphin sightings including group size, observed activity of the dolphins, and weather conditions. We also took water quality measurements such as water temperature and salinity in certain locations along the route and during sightings. On my first survey, I learned that each dolphin has a unique dorsal fin that makes them recognizable. When Jess started to refer to them by name as soon as she saw them, I was shocked. It fascinated me that these dolphins were so well-known and frequently sighted in the area, and knowing many of them had names made me feel more connected to them.

Also, on the first survey I went on, as we were stopped at one location to take water measurements, an 80-foot yacht casually cruised by us. As it continued ahead of us, we read “Catch 23” written across the back, and quickly realized it was Michael Jordan’s fishing boat. Sadly, we did not see him on it, but I like to think that he was inside observing our dolphin research.

(Since I was busy recording data during sightings, I unfortunately did not think to take my own pictures of the dolphins, but I do have a picture on the boat with Jess’s puppy Lulu in her fancy lifejacket.)

My semester-long project for my internship was to compare a set of frequently-sighted dolphins in the Roanoke Sound to an online catalog of dorsal fin photos from Beaufort, NC. The goal of this project was to update a previous comparison done in 2016 and have a better understanding of the travel patterns of bottlenose dolphin stocks in order to better manage and protect their populations. I used the Mid-Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Catalog that includes various photo catalogs from different locations across the coast. The process of comparing the Outer Banks and Beaufort catalogs was very time-consuming and involved scrolling through thousands of photos of dorsal fins, all with slightly unique characteristics. Although it did take a lot of time, it felt like a fun puzzle trying to find matching fins. I ended up finding four matches from my sample of 25. It was a very interesting project for me, and I am very glad I was able to go on the surveys in person to see the actual photographing process as well.

Although I may not end up working specifically with dolphins in the future, this internship did give me great exposure to research experience and validated my interest in doing research and field work in my future career. Jess was a fantastic mentor and gave me opportunities to continue working and volunteering with them after my internship is over. For anyone in future field sites who has an interest in marine biology or research in general, this is a great experience, especially if you like being on the water.

– Emma Bancroft, UNC Class of 2022