A day-in-the-life of a Photo ID Research Biologist
DPMMR Photo ID program researchers conduct monthly boat-based surveys of the bottlenose dolphin population that inhabits the vital waters of the Upper Florida Keys. Such scientific surveys require special authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). In order to minimize harassment to wild dolphin stocks, NMFS requires field researchers to follow rigorous guidelines when surveying dolphins. NMFS safe viewing guidelines require boaters to stay at least 50 yards away from dolphins and 100 yards from whales. More info available at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/insight/viewing-marine-life
Photo-ID surveys are weather dependent and take place when conditions are optimal and wind and waves are minimal. Weather and wind direction often determine which sections of our study area we can survey on a particular day. Survey days start early and commence just after sunrise, and often end just before sunset. In order to maintain a consistent survey effort, a minimum of two experienced crew members are required. The survey crew must include a NMFS authorized investigator listed on the permit, and ideally both investigators are cross trained so that both can safely pilot the boat when driving on dolphins, and also have experience taking digital images and recording sighting data.
Once on the water, we are “on effort” meaning that we are actively looking for dolphins. Typically, one crew member climbs the boat’s tower for better visibility, while the rest of the crew divide the observation area, so each can focus on searching for dolphins in different directions for full 360 degree coverage. To limit the possibility of missing dolphins, the survey vessel travels at a slow speed of 7-8 knots when “on effort”.
Since dolphins only spend 5% of their lives at the surface they can be difficult to locate. Even the most experienced researchers can find it difficult to spot a dorsal fin in open water. Therefore, besides the obvious sighting of dorsal fins we are also on the lookout for other visual indicators including misty spray from their exhalations, splashing, sunlight reflecting off their wet skin and/or birds associated with foraging animals. A lot of different things might catch your eye, like birds or buoys (which are everywhere in the Keys), but it usually becomes apparent pretty quickly that they’re not dolphins.
When dolphins are sighted, we slow or stop the boat to first observe the dolphins at a distance and note their behavior. At the same time we plot their GPS location, ready our cameras and discuss a sighting strategy on how best to approach the dolphins. Depending on the number of crew members on the boat, we position the primary photographer on the bow while the driver operates from the boat’s tower for better visibility of the dolphins. Additional staff may record data, take pictures or simply help keep track of where the dolphins are located as the photographer and captain work to systematically photograph each individual dolphin.
The boat captain works to slowly maneuver the boat alongside and parallel to the dolphins, while maintaining a safe distance of ~10-15m. At the same time, from a higher vantage point, the driver alerts the photographers as to when and where dolphins will surface for a breath. It is at this precise moment when the dolphin fins are visible for only 1 or 2 seconds.
Photographers then attempt to acquire high quality tack-sharp images of each dolphin’s dorsal fin. The boat driver and photographers work together, keeping in mind distance, angle, and lighting. The best images are those when fins are in focus, well lit, and at a perpendicular angle to the camera. Attempts are made to photograph both sides of the dorsal fins, however this can sometimes be very challenging due to ‘backlighting’ and lack of cooperation from the dolphins themselves. Under ideal conditions, an experienced team of 2 -3 staff can quickly obtain the necessary images and collect sighting data on a group of dolphins in 10-20 minutes.
We limit sighting length to 30 minutes or less to reduce the time spent harassing the dolphins. Some animals may exhibit a behavior called ‘boat avoid’ where they make noticeable and repeated efforts to get away from the boat. If any dolphins repeat this behavior 3 times, we immediately end the sighting to limit harassment and stress to the dolphins. Dolphins can also indicate frustration or issue warnings by forcefully exhaling (chuffing) several times in a row and/or forcefully slap their tail flukes on the water’s surface.
Once photographic efforts are completed, another GPS waypoint is recorded to mark the end of the sighting. The remainder of the data sheet is then completed to include specific notations made from the survey observations. Additional information includes environmental conditions, behavioral activities, and maps of the survey routes. Once all data has been recorded, we then resume the survey effort until another group of dolphins is sighted and the process is repeated.
And there’s no shortage of work. Aside from spending all day on a boat looking for and photographing dolphins, one can’t forget about the time spent on equipment cleaning and boat maintenance. This is something that needs to be done at the end of every survey. In addition, for each survey day in the field, we spend two or three days in the lab entering the data and images into a sophisticated database called FinBase.
Once all the data is entered into the database, we begin to sort and process all the images, which are then compared to all previously sighted dolphins to determine whether the dolphins have been sighted previously or are a new entry. This helps build a sighting history of each individual dolphin and allows us to monitor their health and behavior over long periods of time.
Photo ID surveys can be unpredictable, and we never know what to expect when we leave the dock. Some days we’ll have multiple sightings with group size ranging from 1 to 20 or more dolphins, and on other days we won’t see a single dolphin. This unpredictability of dolphin sightings, and variability of weather and other conditions, make all our efforts very challenging, yet equally rewarding.