By Prawno Ambassador, Liah Mcpherson, Photos by Bethany Augliere
For me, it’s always been dolphins. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by their lives and intelligence. What’s going on in their complex brains? How and what do they communicate with each other? What are they thinking about as they glide past and look you in the eye? These are questions that I share with Dr. Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project (WDP, www.wilddolphinproject.org), who has been studying wild Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) in the Bahamas for almost 35 years. A former intern for the project, I was invited back as a field assistant this summer for five 10-day research trips aboard the project’s 62ft power catamaran, the RV Stenella.
In the crystalline waters surrounding Grand Bahama and Bimini, the Wild Dolphin Project performs non-invasive underwater research to study the ecology, behavior and communication of dolphins. We don’t harass, chase or touch the dolphins, and all interactions are voluntary— the dolphins have their own agenda and will disappear in a heartbeat or evade us completely if they want to. Often, they’re interested in or at least accepting of our presence and will spend anywhere from three minutes to three hours zooming around us in the water or simply allowing us to peer into their daily lives.
My typical day on Stenella begins shortly after sunrise when I bring the camera gear outside on the deck and prepare for the day’s research. Following breakfast (and a quick morning swim, weather permitting), I take my coffee up to the bridge of the boat and scan the horizon for dolphins as we lift anchor and begin our search. If it’s bottlenose dolphins we find, we photograph them from the surface for identification, as they tend not to stick around when we jump in the water. We take surface shots with “spotteds” too, but most of our data is gathered underwater with cameras and hydrophones as we record their behavior and vocalizations. On some days, we stop to snorkel and freedive at shipwrecks or coral reefs in the evening. There are also days with rough weather, no dolphins, boat issues or some combination of the three. Nonetheless, no experience rivals being underwater, eye-to-eye with these beautiful and intelligent animals.
The Wild Dolphin Project’s motto is “In their world, on their terms…”— it’s important to note that all of our interactions with wild dolphins are non invasive and solely for research purposes. To study these animals, WDP has attained Bahamian research permits. Please be respectful of wild dolphins and whales in US and Bahamian waters; it is illegal to approach and swim them without a permit. Enjoy them responsibly and sign up for a trip with a environmentally responsible whale or dolphin watch company, or even as a participant on a research trip with the Wild Dolphin Project.