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.

The Dog Days are Coming

I’m writing this post as we are currently being evacuated from the Outer Banks due to the incoming Hurricane Florence. While we had a great start to classes last week, we are now awaiting the return to our new home until the storm passes. To overview last week, which seemed to fly by, we had a Labor Day cookout at our house, the first day for our 3 courses (Coastal Economics, Coastal Management, and Ecology), the first day of internships, and our first lab out on the boat. I’ll go into more detail about each of those a little later.

Labor Day weekend was a fun time for all of us. A few of us made the trek down to see the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, the tallest brick lighthouse in North America. It has about 260 stairs and was quite exhausting to climb, but the view was definitely worth it. The climb definitely required a break to catch our breath every few dozen stairs.

View from the bottom

After a long, tiring climb to the top. The view was beautiful (from left to right: Conor Howachyn, Emma Szczesiul, Lynn Tran, Marium Konsouh, Danesha Byron, Alex Kellogg)

Sunday night was a relatively relaxing night as we watched movies and played a lot of Rock Band. On Labor Day, a few of us had the chance to go to the local water park H2OBX, on the mainland, as our house manager had some extra tickets. No pictures from that unfortunately, but we had a great time despite it being extremely crowded because it was the last day of the season. We rounded the weekend off with a Labor Day feast. We used the charcoal grill in our backyard for the first, and despite some early difficulties (including the flames going out a few times and some meat falling through the grate, because we are environmental majors, not grill masters), the end result was delicious. The food included turkey burgers, veggie burgers, grilled bell peppers, mac and cheese, and grilled peaches for dessert. We also had a delicious salad made by Alex. Most of the food is pictured below.

We were chilling hard indeed, Snapchat. You can tell I’m enjoying that burger.

On Tuesday we finally began classes after what seemed like 2 very long weeks of orientation (we still haven’t fully grasped that we are living in this beautiful place!). We started off with a Coastal Resource Economics taught by Dr. Andy Keeler. While many of us had already taken a basic Economics course, the first day, along with Thursday’s class, were mainly dedicated to review of basic economics concepts and ideas. Following that class, we had our Sustainable Coastal Management class, taught by Dr. Linda D’Anna. This class is more focused on human dimensions of coastal usage and takes a socio-cultural approach to coastal management. We will also be learning about collection of qualitative data, which will be a huge part of our Capstone project.

After a lunch break, we had a Capstone, where our professors offered critiques and suggestions on the proposals we had submitted the week prior, and gave us some good practical feedback that will help us narrow down what we will be researching.

Wednesday was our first day of internships! All of us were placed in different internships, and it was interesting to hear about everyone’s experiences after our first day. The internships vary from positions at the District Attorney’s office, the Town of Nags Head, an environmental consulting firm, the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, and many more. My internship is at the latter. The Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research is a non-profit dedicated to logging the various dolphins seen in the Sound through photo identification and tracking their movements up and down the East Coast. It promotes conservation as well as education of the bottlenose dolphins. They are actually able to identify the dolphins based on distinctive markings on their dorsal fins, and enter them into the national database FinBase. Some of the “famous” dolphins include Onion, who has been spotted as early as 1990, and Flounder.

My first day consisted of going on two dolphin tours, which included mostly tourists itching to see some dolphins. Both sightings did not disappoint, as we saw around 12-15 dolphins on each survey. I was also tasked with recording the data, including how many dolphins we saw, their activities, any recognizable dolphins we saw, as well as things like salinity and water temperature. The data sheet is pictured below, along with a few of the dolphins we saw.

Don’t ask me which dolphins are pictured. I am not an expert on the identification part (yet).

Thursday was another day of classes for us, as we had our second day of the Economics and Management classes in the morning, as well as the first day of Coastal and Estuarine Ecology class with Dr. Lindsay Dubbs. This class is one day per week, but Fridays will consist of a lab or field trip (overnight in some cases).

Our first lab of the semester was the following day, as we arrived at the Coastal Studies Institute at 9 AM and boarded a boat to go out on the Sound. We collected water samples, and recorded data from 3 different sites around the Croatan Sound. We spent almost all day on the boat, and it was definitely a fun yet informative experience. We took measurements on water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll A, photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) at multiple depths at each site. We also used something called a Secchi disk to measure the clarity of the water. After visiting the 3 sites, we stopped at a small beach to learn how to take soil cores (which was very difficult) and have some free time to roam around before returning to CSI.

Marium and Emma (respectively) collecting some data

All in all, it was a great first week of classes, and we ended it on a good note by going to First Friday in downtown Manteo, with live music, great food, and beautiful views of the Sound.

We all decided to dress up for the occasion. Only 8 of us are pictured here, as the rest of the group had gone to the beach and met up with us later on in the night. Front row (left to right): Jenn Allen, Elizabeth Kendrick, Kat Bell, Emma Karlok, Emma Szczesiul, Marium Konsouh). Back row: Harris Kopp, Conor Howachyn