Think back about what it felt like being a kid in elementary school and going on field trips. I remember how exciting it was getting ready for school that morning knowing that my whole day would be spent outside of the classroom, on an adventure. It didn’t really matter to me whether it was a trip to the science museum or to the theater, what mattered was getting the chance to experience the world first-hand. As we get older, field trips become few and far between. But this is not the case at RSMAS where students are offered many opportunities to apply their classroom knowledge in real-world settings.
I had the opportunity to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service on a mark-recapture study of bottlenose dolphins in Biscayne Bay. Although the name “mark-recapture” may suggest otherwise, this study did not actually involve the capture of any dolphins. Rather, it is a survey of dolphin populations using photos to identify and track specific individuals. All dolphins have a dorsal fin on their back, which can actually be used as a ‘fingerprint.’ Throughout its lifetime, a dolphin’s dorsal fin can receive many nicks and cuts resulting in a permanent and unique pattern that can be used in photo-identification studies to identify and catalogue individual dolphins. These catalogues are important in assessing the status and health of individual dolphins, as well as the population in general. And since dolphins are a sentinel species for the environment, their health is representative of the health of our ocean.
The Fisheries Service currently has a catalogue of the Biscayne Bay bottlenose dolphin population, complete with pictures of each dolphin’s dorsal fin. In an effort to update and maintain this catalogue, I was able to partake in one of their surveys to locate and photograph the dolphins. Photographing wild dolphins may seem pretty simple, but I actually found it to be quite challenging. Imagine standing on a boat, trying to maintain balance amidst the waves, while also trying to maintain the bulky camera straight and focused, and then timing the photo just right to capture a clear and centered photo of the dolphin’s dorsal fin. It was challenging but exciting at the same time, being out in the field, and collecting real data. In the end, it was a great experience in which I not only gained more knowledge about photo-identification studies but also a new respect for the skill. I look forward to the many more field trips that lie ahead.
This blog post is part of a series of stories written by RSMAS graduate students enrolled in the Spring 2012 Scientific Communications (RSM 545) course.
MBF – MPS – Marine Mammal Science
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