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Boat-based fieldwork at the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute (BDRI)

Gemma Rae

Faculty: Science and Engineering
School: Life Sciences
Course: MSc Animal Behaviour: Applications for Conservation
Category: Animal sciences

16 June 2023

Animal Behaviour: Applications for Conservation student Gemma continues her account of researching for her thesis in Galicia. This time, she describes her experience of conducting boat-based research for the first time.

Catch up on the fourth instalment of Gemma's experiences in Galicia.

The sea at O Grove, Galicia, on an overcast day

It was grey and overcast here in O Grove today (see left) but the water was calm and glass-like. Perfect conditions to get out on the boat and search for dolphins to study.

As we pulled out of the harbour and headed to the outer ría (river/inlet), it was eerily calm and there was a sense of excitement in the air. After weeks of high winds and poor visibility preventing us from getting out on the boat properly, this was the moment I had been waiting for.

We were all focused and scanning the sea surface as we cruised through the water. Lots of beautiful seabirds were present which are counted during surveys, including storm petrels (see below).

A storm petrel flying over the sea

Image credit: © BDRI

As I have mentioned previously, knowing where to start searching for dolphins seems an impossible task at first. Having had the opportunity to do several land surveys here, I really appreciate what a coordinated effort it is between the land and boat teams to locate the dolphins.

It didn’t take long before the call came in from one of the land teams – they had spotted dolphins near the bateas!

We picked up the pace and followed their directions, and finally we saw the dolphins with our binoculars. The dolphins started moving away from the bateas, gliding through the water with such grace and in perfect synchrony.

For a few moments they vanished, and I sat with bated breath waiting to see where they would resurface. Suddenly, I heard a ‘whoosh’ of air from the dolphins' blow holes, and they appeared literally metres away from us, with a calf too!

Once the dolphins are located, everyone springs into action. Clear communication, good teamwork and multitasking are essential to accurately document the behaviour of these fast-moving animals.

I can’t find the right words to describe how I felt seeing the dolphins so close for the first time, there’s just something about dolphins that is so captivating and emotive.

As we recorded their behaviour and surrounding boat presence, the calf broke away from the pod and came right up to our boat, turning on his side to look up at us! He did this several times and we were all charmed by his playful and inquisitive behaviour.

Whilst monitoring the females and calf, there was another ‘whoosh’ of air to the right of the boat – a large male was travelling parallel to the group. He was a known individual, recognisable from his dorsal fin.

As we alternated between monitoring him and the rest of the group, at one point he stopped, floating up ahead of us and raised his head out of the water to check us out.

It was surreal, and there was something about the experience that I found almost overwhelming as I could feel how intently he was watching us. There was such curiosity and intelligence in his eyes, and I couldn’t help but wish I knew what was going on in his mind at that moment.

A dolphin with its head and tail above the surface of the sea, with the fin of another dolphin behind it

Image credit: © BDRI

Fins of three dolphins visible above the surface of the sea

Image credit: © BDRI

View from above of of a dolphin swimming just under the surface of the sea

Image credit: © BDRI

Two dolphins leaping over the surface of the sea, one on the way up and the other on the way down

Image credit: © BDRI

As this encounter was purely for research purposes that can help inform conservation efforts, it really gave a new level of meaning to the experience. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be gaining hands-on fieldwork experience and improving my understanding of bottlenose dolphin behaviour.

My time at the BDRI has really demonstrated the commitment, patience and skill required to study wild marine mammals and some of the challenges faced in this field of research.

On a personal level, today reminded me why I have always been intrigued by the ocean and its fascinating inhabitants. Beneath the waves lies a hidden and mysterious world, one that we still know so little about, where charismatic species like dolphins live in their own unique and complex societies.

Can’t wait to get out on the boat again this week to learn more about studying dolphins in the field and seeing them in their natural habitat where they belong.

Gemma is studying Animal Behaviour: Applications for Conservation at ARU in Cambridge. Find out more about this and other degree courses at one of our Open Days.


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