Jessica Taylor has a passion for dolphin research and she keeps busy year round operating the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research (OBXCDR), a nonprofit organization that studies bottlenose dolphins in the Roanoke Sound.
Their mission is to promote conservation of these dolphins, which are marine mammals and not to be confused with dolphin fish known as mahi-mahi when served at restaurants.
Recently, Taylor launched from the boat ramp near Pirate’s Cove with two volunteers on board to survey dolphin groups in the sound. Just before casting off, the crew performed several scientific tasks such as recording their present GPS location.
Taylor conducts photo-identification of dorsal fins of each dolphins because each dorsal fin is distinct and can be used to identify individual mammals. The OBXCDR database includes hundreds of different dorsal fins.
Collecting the data makes for an interesting day on the water aboard her 17-foot Mako center console Li’ili’Nai’a, which is Hawaiian for ‘little dolphin,’ she says.
“When we see a group, a sighting, we photograph the dorsal fins, record their location, their activity, group size, and ‘environmentals’ such as water temperature and salinity,” Taylor says. “We have documented about 850 individuals in our catalog since 2008.”
“We’re working on using a modeling program to see how the numbers increase and decrease over time,” she says. “[Right now] the population seems pretty stable.”
Taylor says the transect survey entails navigating the same route every time. “We cover the same area so the survey is standardized,” she says, adding they may, however, reverse the course, depending on the wind direction.
Basically, she says, they leave the bridge area and run south down to Oregon Inlet and then travel as far north as the Lost Colony area of north Roanoke Island, and then back to the bridge at Pirate’s Cove.
Jenna Livernois says she’s been volunteering with Taylor for three years.
“I help spot dolphins in the sounds and navigate the boat while she takes dorsal fin photos,” Livernois says. “Even though our photo research is primarily on bottlenose dolphins, it has a greater ‘porpoise.’”
To further assist Taylor in her mission, the Outer Banks Community Foundation awarded the OBXCDR a $4,580 grant this past spring. The money helps defray costs associated with expanding their ongoing project to three surveys each month.
Some of the grant funds also will be used for educational panels at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head when the skeletal re-articulation of “Moe,” a former resident bottlenose dolphin, goes on display next winter. Scientists are able to track dolphins like Moe through photo-identification.
Unfortunately, Moe died two years ago but now, he’ll be reborn in a way and help educate the public about marine mammals.
“He’s one of our longtime males,” Taylor said. “Also a Beaufort resident, he was a regular visitor to the Outer Banks.”
After Moe stranded on a beach in Beaufort in March of 2016, there was a necropsy, which is an autopsy for an animal. Moe was buried in a designated area with other marine mammals, and after a certain length of time, he was recovered by Keith Rittmaster of the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort.
Once it goes in display in the Jennette’s pier house, educational panels will describe Moe’s life and hopefully raise awareness of bottlenose dolphin conservation and stranding response teams, Taylor said.
Currently, a handful of pier staff volunteer as Marine Mammal Stranding Network first responders daily year round including pier educators Christin Brown, Rachel Potts and Livernois. They are each excited to have Moe’s story told at Jennette’s Pier.
“We are excited to collaborate with Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research and to be able to have Moe here on display at the pier,” Brown said. “It is a great opportunity to educate the public about marine mammals and teach them ways to protect these animals.”
Potts agrees with Brown.
“This is a unique chance to have four agencies come together to tell the story of this dolphin,” she said. “He was tracked by OBXCDR via sightings, his carcass was found and collected by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network (MMSN), then rearticulated by Keith and his final destination is at Jennette’s Pier where he will serve as an educational opportunity.”
Taylor said that thanks to the grant, her team is also set to have a record number of surveys, from April through November. They hope the additional information on the identity and ecology of bottlenose dolphins in Roanoke Sound.
She also hopes to expand the coverage areas to include adjacent sounds and right along the oceanfront too. Moe is not the only bottlenose dolphin to get a name, there are also others with names including Onion, Scarlet, Skylar and Rake.
The OBXCDR, a nonprofit organization, offers volunteer opportunities for the local community to assist with local dolphin research and teach others about dolphin conservation.