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Journals 2003/2004

Elizabeth Gibbs
Thompson Middle School, Newport, Rhode Island

"Impact of human activities on dusky dolphin behavior and population biology"
Field Station, Kaikora, New Zealand
July 13 - 25, 2003

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Friday, July 25, 2003

I was up early, as usual, to pack. Mika, Jeanie, and Sangeetha were kind enough to give everyone gifts. After group pictures and hugs, we were each off on our own travels or returns home. I stayed overnight at the Dusky Lodge in town so I could swim with the dolphins. I had longed to get into the water with them as soon as I had laid eyes on them, so I was looking forward to it.

In the morning I found myself at Dolphin Encounter, climbing into a slightly damp wetsuit that reminded me that it was indeed winter in the southern hemisphere. Armed with snorkel, fins, hood, and gloves, we watched a briefing video that warned us not to swim into the boat and reminded us that dolphins don't fly. It's true - I recalled seeing swimmers off the Dolphin Encounter boats sometimes looking anxiously into the air scanning for dolphins. As the first trip of the day, we got to board the boat on land then take the trailer ride into the water.

On the way out, I d id begin to wonder just how cold I was going to get in the water, which we'd measured yesterday at 9 degrees C (48 degrees F). However, I was too excited to worry much, and I was certainly better off that the guy sitting next to me, who was already shivering uncontrollably. As we approached the dolphins, we all got out on the platform on the stern of the boat. The woman next to me said, "This is mad, I'm freezing!" We slowed as we approached the pond and the horn sounded, so we all jumped into the water. At first we were nothing but a flailing huddle of 13 sets of fins, arms, and snorkels, but were soon dispersed. I started making the requisite noises and tried to dive, but with a full wetsuit and no weights, it was exhausting. It was taking a lot of energy to get used to the cold water, which stung my face at first and made me a little short of breath.

But then the first dolphin swam by a foot or two away from me and I forgot all discomfort. Involuntarily, I started saying "Hi there," and "Hello beautiful! You are sooo beautiful!" into my snorkel. Then several more came by, looked me over and took off. You can tell when they're looking at you. I could actually see a little eye white, which I'd never noticed before from the boat. I had also not seen from the boat how scratched up they were. It seemed that they all had rake marks from other dolphins' teeth on many parts of their bodies. On some, the marks are very near their eyes.

The dolphins' effortless movement seemed even more so when "swimming" alongside them. From their point of view, what we do couldn't possibly be considered real swimming! Think of an Olympic sprinter racing a little child who just learned to walk last week and that's about how different we are.

We were in the water for about 15 minutes when I noticed that the number of dolphins had dropped and sure enough, the horn sounded for us to move to a different location to which the dolphins had moved. We stayed at the second site for about another 15 minutes. At times, there were as many as 15 dolphins swimming around me, in all their black, gray, and white grace and beauty. They like to play a game in which they swim circles around you and get you to spin around and around and follow them. It's as though they know that humans get dizzy. They also appear to be taunting the humans by swimming around them, then diving, as if to say "Ha ha, you can't do this." Of course, I am projecting these attributes on them, but as they are very intelligent, I wouldn't be surprised if they have a sense of humor-now there's a research project.

I was pretty cold by the time the horn sounded for us to get back on the boat. As we pulled our hoods and booties off and poured hot water down our wetsuits, I glowed thinking about my chance finally to get in the water with the dolphins. But I realized something else. It wasn't enough. What I really wanted was to be a dolphin, to feel what it's like to live always in the water, to swim as they do, leap as they do, dive as they do.

But I can't be greedy. I've had an unbelievable opportunity to have the great privilege of learning about these animals and spend more time with them than almost anyone. Now I have the chance to share this experience with others and a teacher can't ask for anything better.

Answers to just a few of my many questions

  • Are there reasons besides signaling that dolphins leap? Sometimes dolphins are believed to leap so that they can see ahead. For example, some species, in some places, are thought to leap in order to see feeding birds on the water surface ahead, indication the presence of fish.
  • Do dolphins sleep? If so, how? Dolphins don't sleep per se. When resting, however, they reduce the activity of one brain hemisphere. The other hemisphere makes sure that the dolphin continues to breathe, which, unlike in humans, is a purely conscious activity.
  • When do duskies mate and give birth? Early spring to early summer. The gestation period is 11 months.
  • Does the abundance and type of prey differ seasonally? I didn't find that this was so, although it might be. I do know that dolphins that move between Kaikoura and the Marlborough Sounds feed differently in summer and winter - both behaviorally and the type of prey they eat.
  • What's the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise? Major differences are that hey have a different skull shape and porpoises have "spade-shaped" teeth.
  • Do duskies rely heavily on echolocation to catch their food? Barbara Todd, a local naturalist, says yes. Other scientists are not so sure.

Thing I learned that was the "closest to home"
This project's research in the Marlborough Sounds has led to involvement in a controversy over proposals to develop mussel farms across the entire with of Admiralty Bay. Currently mussel farms-ropes suspended from buoys, providing a substrate for mussel growth-line the nearshore, but the native Maoris, who have fairly recently been granted to rights to the bay floor, as well as others, have proposed extending the farms. The project's research in the sounds has determined that dolphins will not feed in the confusing environment of the hanging mussel farms, and they wonder what will happen if the dolphins are excluded from this entire bay. Other researchers wonder whether the available plankton will support a larger population of the world-famous New Zealand green-lipped mussel. This situation relates to similar user conflicts, aquaculture and otherwise, in the relatively crowded Narragansett Bay. We are always trying to balance demands on our coastal resources and good science is so important when making decisions.

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