By Jessica Taylor / Correspondent
March 5, 2021
Even though the dolphins have left the sound for the winter, the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research remains busy crunching data, writing up results, and planning new projects for next summer. Pretty soon, we will be gearing up for our volunteer trainings to teach others how to assist with our dolphin research and educate others about dolphin conservation.
As a nonprofit organization, volunteers are integral to the success of our organization. Our mission is to promote the conservation of bottlenose dolphins on the Outer Banks through research and education; neither of these goals would be possible without help.
Every spring, we hold photo-identification trainings to teach volunteers the purpose and protocols of how we collect our boat-based photo-identification data on our local bottlenose dolphins. Surveys span from April through October, although we plan to extend our survey effort this year into March and November.
Each survey is conducted aboard our 17-foot Mako center console research vessel, the Li’ili’i Nai’a. A survey involves checking Roanoke Sound for dolphins and photographing the dorsal fins of the dolphins we see. Surveys are standardized, meaning they cover the same area every time, and range from 4 to 8 hours, depending how many dolphin groups we encounter.
Over time, dolphins acquire notches and nicks on their dorsal fins; these markings make dolphins individually distinct. The photos we collect aboard our research surveys are cataloged to build a sighting history for every dolphin in Roanoke Sound. Many dolphins have only been seen by our research team once or twice; others such as Onion, Skylar and Fatlip, have been seen on more than 30 occasions since we began our research in 2008.
Volunteers participate in data collection as soon as our survey boat leaves the dock by searching for dolphins, recording sightings, and measuring environmental variables such as water temperature and salinity. Every piece of data we record on a group is linked to each dolphin and helps us answer questions such as how many dolphins summer on the Outer Banks and how water temperature affects dolphin health.
Volunteers get to learn about the dolphins first-hand and contribute to our long-term monitoring study. Warm glassy days out on the water with clear skies and playful dolphins are a pleasure, and each survey is definitely a memorable experience.
There’s also an education component to our mission to promote dolphin conservation. Although much of our outreach takes place at local festivals throughout the Outer Banks, programs have also been conducted for local schools and organizations, such as the Dare County Library. We also provide outreach at the annual Coastal Studies Institute open house, where our research space is located.
Although the outlook for festivals this spring remains unknown, the need for education about our local dolphins is always there. Volunteers teach others about how we study the dolphins, what we have learned about them, and how people can contribute to their conservation. They also conduct dolphin crafts with children to teach about dolphins and their environment.
All of our volunteer trainings will be held virtually this year. Our photo-identification trainings will be held via Zoom at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 6, and at 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 7. Our virtual outreach training will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 20. To sign up for any of the virtual trainings, visit obxdolphins.org.
Biologist Jessica Taylor is president of the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research. She has a Bachelor of Science in marine science from Rutgers and master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University. She has participated in field research studies of bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, Steller sea lions and predatory fish in Florida, South Carolina, New Jersey, Alaska and Australia. In 2008, she incorporated the nonprofit Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, which is dedicated to conservation of bottlenose dolphins on the Outer Banks. For more info, visit obxdolphins.org.