Finding my Porpoise

Hey there! I’m Emily I, here with an update about my internship this semester.

Seeing dolphins at the beach has long been one of my favorite parts of visiting the Outer Banks. I have a distinct memory of my first time swimming in the ocean at Pea Island and watching in awe as a pod of dolphins splashed through the water near shore. My excitement was understandably off the charts when Corey called me at the end of the summer to tell me that I’d be interning with the Outer Banks Center For Dolphin Research (OBXCDR).

The hype only grew when on the first day of internships, some of my classmates were dressing up in their office-wear while I donned a Carolina T-shirt and headed for the docks. My first meeting with my mentor, Jess Taylor, the founder of the OBX Center for Dolphin Research, was on our opportunistic sighting vessel, a 19 foot pontoon boat belonging to the Nags Head Dolphin Watch. I would soon log hours on this boat, assisting Jess and Captain John of the Nags Head Dolphin Watch in educating tourists of all ages on the Outer Banks dolphins! We set sail, weather permitting, in search of the countless dolphins inhabiting Roanoke Sound. When we spotted a group, we would approach them carefully as to not disturb their behavior and watch them splash and play and feed in the shallow water. Along with educating visitors on dolphin behavior and conservation, I assisted Jess with the research component of the trips. Upon sighting dolphins, we use a technique called photo-identification to record which dolphins were spotted. Photos are taken of each dolphins dorsal fin, which usually contains small cuts and markings that are used to identify the dolphin. I began to recognize some dolphins that showed up consistently, like Double Scoop, named for the two “scoops” visible on her dorsal fin. Double Scoop also had a calf a few summers ago that has shown up consistently this season, adorably named Little Scoop.

I also assisted in filling out data sheets for each dolphin sighting, which contained environmental variables like air and water temperature and salinity. This helps the OBXCDR keep track of dolphin behavior and how it related to certain environmental characteristics. In addition to dolphin watch trips, Jess has invited me on dedicated survey days, where we head out in a small boat with just a few researches, scanning the sound for dolphins in a more methodical way. As is the nature of the OBX, many of these surveys have been cancelled due to wind and storms, but the surveys that have proceeded have been very successful. I have yet to board a boat out here and NOT see at least a few dolphins!

While not out on the boat soaking up the sun (and sometimes storms) and watching dolphins, another component of my internship is focused on research. Jess has noticed, in her experience with dolphins in Roanoke Sound, that certain dolphins appear with barnacles attached to their dorsal fins. These barnacles, called xenobalanus globicipitus, are picked up by dolphins while they are in the ocean and carried into the sound. Not much is known about these barnacles and when or why they attach to dolphins, though they do not seem to cause any discomfort or harm to their carriers. I am examining past photos from dolphin surveys for the presence of this barnacle, hoping that we will be able to gain some knowledge about dolphin behavior and use of the sound from the seasonality of barnacle presence. Dolphins tend to show up in the sound throughout the summer and head to the ocean in the fall. As dolphin watch season comes to a close, I am focusing more on my research project and paper and learning all there is to know about the bottlenose dolphins of the Outer Banks!

As a shameless plug and sidenote; This weekend I will be manning a dolphin outreach booth at the 8th annual Outer Banks Shrimp Cookoff, where local chefs will compete to create the best shrimp dish. The best part (aside from my duty of taste-testing all of the shrimp) is that all proceeds from this super fun event will benefit the Center for Dolphin Research! Check out the event website for more info!




A Week of Firsts

With orientation solidly in the rear view, the thirteen field site students faced the perpetually daunting task of getting back to class after a hot summer and a long labor day weekend. Tuesday brought plentiful classroom time, reminding us all that while the beach is only a quick trip across the bridge away, we are, in fact, here for school! That Tuesday night we attended our very first (and significantly less terrifying than originally expected) CAB meeting, which Mark discussed in his previous post. I personally had interesting dinner conversations with Heidi Wadman from the Army Corps of Engineers, and Mathew Price, a coastal developer. After a very full first day, everyone headed home eager to face the next first of the week–internships!

The Emilys enjoying a beautiful post-CAB meeting sunset

Wednesday morning rolled around and it was time for the squad to split up, all heading our separate ways. From excavating sea turtle nests and completing dolphin surveys to attending town board meetings, it’s safe to say that everyone had a unique first day on the job! More to come on those internships later as each of us will be explaining our adventures in individual posts. Thursday brought in a new day of classes along with beautiful weather. [Specifics on the material covered in class?] With the afternoon free, we spent our free time volunteering at the Dare County Animal Shelter, working on our plot at the community garden, and taking some much appreciated nap and Netflix time. Coming back together later that evening, a couple of us took on (an Andy Keeler favorite and an Outer Banks classic) Food Dudes Taco Thursday. Fried avocado tacos and coconut shrimp tacos were both fan favorites of the evening as we headed off to bed before a sure-to-be-exciting first Friday of field work.

Friday morning was our first day of field work for our capstone project! We set our sights on two living shoreline projects for various tests which included soil cores, biomass analysis, salinity measurements, and measures of other ecological variables. As it turns out, trial and error is a huge part of scientific field work… our soil cores didn’t come out quite as well as originally anticipated, but we still gathered valuable data and knowledge to make our next attempt at data collection go more.. smoothly. We also got to visit two living shoreline projects and see the concept in action, in addition to showing off some super fancy waders. (modeled below)

Making observations about the living shoreline at Jockey’s Ridge
Stellar display of the utility of waders and waterproof research equipment

As always, Friday night provided the perfect time for some group shenanigans! We started the night with chips and salsa on the porch because the weather was absolutely beautiful. Afterwards, we piled in our cars and made our way to Mutiny Bay where we proceeded to played a mean round of mini golf. Mark was the winner, but Emily P. was a close second; unfortunately, Kurt lost. Bianca got so many hole-in-ones that she ~won~ a stuffed shark named Chantel. We really bonded over our sporty endeavor and decided to go to sonic to refuel. Overall, the night was full of wholesome fun and laughter.