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Lend A Hand to Research By Participating in the Wild Dolphin Project

By Rebecca Gaunt

Dolphins are such beloved mammals that controversial entertainment parks have sprung up around the world to offer the opportunity to touch and swim with them. The Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Florida, on the other hand, offers an opportunity to learn about dolphins in their natural habitat while contributing to research.

Research Director Dr. Denise L. Herzing says, "My goal, as a young graduate student, was to find a place in the world where we could observe dolphins underwater and study their behavior and communication. Most dolphin researchers are limited to observing from the surface since the ocean is murky or hazardous in most places in the world. The Bahamas allowed me to track and observe details of the dolphins' underwater behavior and sound, and to track this small resident community for three generations, much like the primate researchers Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey did decades ago."

In 1985, Herzing found a pod of free-ranging spotted dolphins in the Atlantic Ocean. It was the perfect species for study because they gained spots as they aged and allowed her to study how their behavior changed over time. From this discovery, the Wild Dolphin Project was born, focusing on dolphin communication in the wild via long-term, non-invasive research. Research also focuses on behaviors, social structure and habitat.

Little Gash is a dolphin that has been observed since 1986. The researchers have been able to watch her from the time she was a juvenile, see her become a babysitter for the younger dolphins, and eventually birth her own calf in 1993. Her interactions are still being studied to this day.

"We have learned that dolphins have complex lives and relationships," says Herzing. "They have friendships for life, live in a supportive society, interact with the local bottlenose dolphins in complex ways, and produce a variety of vocalizations that we are still trying to decipher."

So how can you take part in this scientific adventure? Several research trips, typically lasting ten days, depart from Florida to the Bahamas during the summer field season. Each trip on an open-ocean catamaran has a maximum of six participants who help the staff collect data and observe the dolphins. Physical contact with the dolphins is not permitted. Participants also have the opportunity to snorkel on shipwrecks, eat fresh fish caught by the crew and see some spectacular sunsets. There are two shared, air-conditioned living quarters and four bathrooms. The trips are environmentally friendly with an emphasis on recycling, and drinking water is created from the ocean through reverse osmosis.

The importance of minimizing their impact on the ocean is reflected in the research. "In 2013, we had a dramatic shift of 50 percent of our dolphins to a new location. We suspect a breakdown in the food chain, probably driven by climate change. Although the dolphins have temporarily adapted, it remains a strong example of how our impact as humans can have a dramatic effect on wildlife and their normal challenges to survive," Herzing says.

The goal of the Wild Dolphin Project is to tell the story of a healthy, free ranging dolphin society to create awareness and respect for wildlife. What better way to do that than giving people that wouldn't ordinarily have the chance the opportunity to see them in their everyday habitat.

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About The Author

Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a...

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