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More 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

23 June 2023

Animal Behaviour: Applications for Conservation student Gemma continues her account of researching for her thesis in Galicia. This time, she tells us about a particularly special day out on the boat.

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

As the weather has been ideal, we have had a full week of fieldwork here at the BDRI. Although I enjoy learning at the BDRI lab, having the chance to get out in the field is really exciting.

Some days can be spent searching for hours to either not find any dolphins, or have a brief sighting from afar before they vanish. Other days you can be lucky enough to locate a large group almost immediately and be able to spend the day studying them, which is what happened today!

We were only just out of the harbour when dolphins were seen up ahead foraging near the bateas. At first, we thought there were around eight dolphins present. but within minutes we spotted several other groups within a few hundred metres travelling towards the first group.

Having read extensively about the fission-fusion dynamics of dolphin society, I found it fascinating to actually see this in action.

Throughout the course of the day, the dolphins would spend time travelling and socialising in a large group of around 40 or more but split off into smaller groups and travelled in separate directions at various points.

Observing such a large group of dolphins was one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life. There were times when we were completely surrounded by the large group – they were launching themselves out of the water all around us, slapping their tails at the surface, riding the waves and swimming up alongside our boat.

There was so much activity we almost didn’t know where to look – it felt like we were watching one big dolphin party!

The sociable nature of bottlenose dolphins is very obvious when observing them in the wild. It is delightful and so heart-warming seeing how much fun they seem to have with each other. You can see some lovely examples of leaps, breaches and tail slaps in the pictures below.

A dolphin leaping from the sea

Image credit: © BDRI

A dolphin's fin, back, and tail visible above the surface of the sea

Image credit: © BDRI

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

Image credit: © BDRI

Four dolphins leaping from the sea at once, in different directions and stages of leap

Image credit: © BDRI

Being surrounded by so many dolphins was the perfect opportunity for bioacoustic monitoring. It is really important to study subsurface communication alongside surface behaviours to better understand dolphin behaviour.

Listening in on the dolphins’ whistles and clicks in real time is something I will never forget – there is something very alien and hauntingly beautiful about these sounds. I would give absolutely anything to understand what the dolphins are saying to each other!

Unfortunately, it was very sad to hear how much the noisy surrounding boat activity drowns out the dolphins' communication. We eventually had to abandon the recording as all we could hear was noise from the boats.

Again, this really made me think about understanding the effects of human activity on dolphin behaviour and ultimately, their long-term survival.

It has been inspiring spending time with the team here at the BDRI, and it makes me feel hopeful for the future meeting other students from across the globe who are as passionate as I am about the conservation and welfare of animals.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed and a sense of eco-anxiety when it comes to conservation and sometimes, we can feel like it’s too late to make positive changes. This is far from the truth (as highlighted in the Communication Skills module), and it has been uplifting to meet so many people not just at the BDRI, but also at ARU who genuinely care and want to make a difference in conservation.

Fins of six dolphins visible above the surface of the sea

Image credit: © BDRI

A dolphin skimming the surface of the sea

Image credit: © BDRI

Two donkeys in a field, one with its head over the top of a wooden fence, and the other with its nose between the top and second bars of the fence

I am sad that my time at the BDRI is coming to an end, but so grateful for the opportunity to have learnt so much here and I feel really positive about the future. I am going to enjoy the rest of my time out here as it is going far too quickly.

For now, time to chill for the evening and go for a walk across to Illa da Toxa with my flatmates before heading out for some dinner. We found some donkeys hidden amongst the trees there (see left) and we often visit them after work to give them some fuss.

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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