“I love being out on the water and watching all the personalities,” says Jessica Taylor. “Plus its neat to see how they change over the years.”
Sound like a case of summertime shenanigans at the beach? Yes. Just in this situation it is not of the human variety.
The mammals Taylor studies live between 40-50 years, and are anywhere from 8- to 9 feet long, weigh in at a whopping 800- to 900 pounds, can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes, and communicate through echolocation.
The highly equipped and social creature we speak of is the bottle nose dolphin — and it is safe to say that the population is more than lucky to have Jessica as one of their advocates.
Since receiving her Masters from Duke in environmental management, Taylor has worked with NOAA as a contract biologist studying seals in Alaska and bottlenose dolphins in the Carolinas.
“I actually studied for a year at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina," Taylor says. "It was the first time I had ever lived in Coastal NC, and I absolutely loved it.”
As soon as a position came available on the Outer Banks for a naturalist/research assistant with the Nags Head Dolphin Watch Jessica’s bags were packed.
Since that move 11 years ago, Taylor has established herself as a science teacher for Dare County Schools and as the executive director for the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, a volunteer run, nonprofit she helped establish with her husband in 2008.
On any given day, Taylor and her team of data recorders can be found on the center’s 17ft. research vessel in one of their survey areas; the Roanoke, Albemarle or Croatan Sound.
“The best time to be out in the water is mostly between July and September, as it is when the dolphins come in to the sound for food and to follow fish.”
It’s hard, if not impossible to say how long dolphins have been coming in to our inland waters, but in studying the same areas, Jessica and her crew are are able to gather date that is standardized and extremely valuable.
“This seems to be a good area for moms and calves,” Taylor says. “The water is shallow and there is a lot of food.”
In order to monitor and identify specific dolphins, the team photographs their markings.
“We study the lesions on the dorsal fins, which can indicate how healthy they are.” The photos are then compiled in a catalog, which acts as a self-contained reference library for the stock.
“We have over 900 dolphins, a while some don’t have markings and others have disappeared, there are others that have been with us since the beginning.”
With names like Onion, Fatlip and Sinatra, these characters play key roles in indicating how healthy our area is.
“Their behavior and movement patterns can show changes in fish populations and on down the food chain,” she says. “Contaminants are also stored in their blubber which once studied can mirror water quality. We would love to be able to see how pristine our sound really is and to be able to study the dolphins that go up in the rivers and as far west as Columbia. There is still so much we don’t know.”
More research means more time on the water and that always equals more funding, which is rather tight these days. Thanks to the Outer Banks Community Foundation a grant was received for field surveys and an educational display for conservation at Jennette’s Pier.
“With this grant we have doubled our time in the water,” she says “And thanks to a recovery by the stranding response team in Beaufort our long time pal 'Moe' will have his skeleton included in the display along with rotating panels showing info. about our research.”
Even though the Outer Banks has developed greatly over the 30 years, “It’s still pretty pristine, and that brings tourists here.”
Our area offers a unique opportunity for folks to see and experience mammals existing as nature intends. The work that Taylor and her team carry on with zeal and passion ensures that these populations remain healthy and that future scientists have a strong database to pull from.
While the rest of us may not have the ability to conduct similar research, there are ways we can lend a hand.
“I always tell people a great way to help is to volunteer for beach clean-ups,” Taylor says. “Reduce waste, don’t use plastic bags and always report stranded mammals as that’s how we find out about viruses and die-offs among the dolphins.”
Keep an eye out next time you find yourself on the water, you just never know who you might see.