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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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Tuesday, July 15, 2003

The sun rose through clouds this morning, but they blew through. The weather channel predicted rough seas. By 8:30 we were ready to leave. Mika, Erik and I with Tim bound for Punua Aihe and Louise, Sangeetha, and Jeanie with Anita and Jenny on the Dolphin Encounter boat to record data on numbers of swimmers, drop time, boat status, and pod size, as well as leaping behavior.

We traveled over to the South Bay and launched the boat. Anita showed me how to release the boat from the trailer. We wore the latest in nautical fashion - survival suits. These are giant orange insulated suits that make you look like a Ghostbusters character crossed with a NASA astronaut. Underneath these we have thick boot liners inside "gumboots" that go up almost to the knee. The survival suits are designed to keep you alive if plunged into cold water, so they have floatation, too. You blow up a pillow behind your head to keep it up if you go in the water, since your head weighs about as much as a bowling ball. Thus bundled up, we took off at good speed in search of dolphins. It's fun to sit on the sides; you just need to hang on! Tim was headed out to where another boat had said there were dolphins. The Earthwatch team and the dolphin boats have a good relationship and help each other out in this regard. After about 10 minutes, we were able to see the dolphins.

It's so hard to describe what it's like when you first see them. In a way, it's almost like you're watching a video. This sounds strange, but it took me a little while to comprehend, really comprehend, This is happening! There are dolphins everywhere I look. They know I'm here. They're interacting with us. Yes, that gray skin now has a visible texture: smooth, shiny with water, sometimes scarred. Thosedeep black eyes - are they looking at me? They're exhaling as they come up, hitting me with a spray of their breath. And are they really hurtling out of the water, turning a 360 in the air before slamming down in the water with a noisy splash? Many scientists believe that these leaps are used for communication-you can see how the sound would carry a long way.

Perhaps best of all in my opinion is leaning over the bow and watching the dolphins speed by in the water directly below, sometimes keeping pace with the boat and at other times just checking us out then dashing off. I loved seeing them leap out of the water, then disappear into the green depths - a brief jump into our world of air (although theirs too since they breathe it and their ancestors were of it). I admired the sleek, relaxed confidence of them -animals at their best, playful and beautiful



We collected two sets of behavioral data, 40 minutes each, divided into two-minute intervals. Social rubs, bubbles, tail slaps, a variety of noisy leaps, eyes out (looking at us), even playing with kelp-we saw most of them except "chase" and "mate." This not being true mating season, mating right now is for social purposes only.

We had hundreds of dolphins all around us today for about 4 hours. Part of the time, there were Dolphin Encounter boats with swimmers nearby. We could hear them singing into their snorkels, as instructed by the crew, to entertain and therefore attract the dolphins. I wonder whether this is more to entertain the crew than the dolphins. We also had a fur seal swimming alongside us for most of the first data set, and we recorded that too. I had taken some Kiwi stuff called "Sea Legs," in the morning, so my stomach, normally horribly prone to seasickness, was nice and settled. Poor Erik was sick from 10 a.m. on. I was highly sympathetic, as I recalled every nuance of how seasickness feels.

I also got my chance to try my hand at photo i.d.-catching shots of fins, which is hard. I kept snapping photos by accident with the automatic focus and fear that I may have recorded only gray blurs. Fortunately, the project uses digital cameras, so my errors weren't costly. While we collected data and information outside the data set, Tim snapped several cards of digital photos.

Really, I could spend all day watching the dolphins. Come to think of it, I did! Around 2:00 or 2:30 we headed closer to shore for a coastal tour on the way back past Barney's Rock and Goose Bay. Then Mika spotted the large black back and high spray of a sperm whale at rest. It's impossible to comprehend how truly huge they are. After about five minutes, the whale dove, its enormous tail fluke rising high into the air, then sliding into the water.

We didn't turn up any Hector's dolphins, but maybe next time. We also checked out fur seals on Barney's Rock, along with white-faced herons, red-billed gulls, and shags (what we call cormorants) in outrageous breeding plumage. The weather was gorgeous, at times so warm that I took off two layers and worked almost all day with neither hat nor gloves. We knew we were spoiled because Tim said it never gets any better, winter or summer.

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