It’s 6 a.m. and the 62-foot research vessel Stenella is at anchor in the northern Bahamas. Dr. Denise Herzing is on the first shift of dolphin watching. I’m up too, chatting with Herzing about her work. As we’re talking, we both hear a dolphin pop up to take a breath. We scramble to get into snorkeling gear and slip into the water.
In the early morning, the light is magical, and the dolphins are sweet and curious. As we quietly observe them, they swim mere inches from our noses. It is an incredible experience, the perfect wake-up.
And so it goes during our time of watching Herzing and her team work. Except over the years, these magical moments have translated into a database of recorded observations that have led to a deeper understanding about the dolphins’ demographics, diet, fertility and social behavior. Herzing has also made hundreds of hours of audio recordings matched to the dolphins’ behavior, which has revealed a complex range of communication that is both audible and inaudible to the human ear.
Dr. Herzing is the world’s leading authority on the species Stenella frontalis and began the Wild Dolphin Project in 1985. For more than 27 years, she has been tracking three generations of the same Atlantic spotted dolphin pod. And she knows each and every dolphin — from physical characteristics and markings to personalities and family histories.
This type of data collection requires a lot of time on the water, and Herzing is clearly as comfortable aboard Stenella as she is in the water with her familiar pod of dolphins. “I am more of an old-school-style researcher,” says Herzing. “I believe in full immersion in the environment of my subjects.”
This complete dedication is obvious whenever wild dolphins appear alongside and in the bow’s wake of Stenella. Herzing instantly recognizes characteristics and spot patterns of individuals, and recites names as well as their familial lineage. Much of this lineage understanding was established by direct observation, but the team also developed noninvasive DNA techniques for tracking paternity, and detailing the complex family and societal structures.
Thanks to the hands-off philosophy of the Wild Dolphin Project and the natural curiosity of these intelligent creatures, an amazing level of comfort and even voluntary interaction has occurred in this wild and natural environment. “In their world, on their terms” is the motto of the research project. But that still allows for interesting engagement where the dolphins choose to be observers and even appear to make token gestures — delivering a small clump of sargassum to a snorkeler, for instance. At other times, a new dolphin mother almost seems to “present” her new calf to her familiar onlookers as an act of pride or sharing.
One of Herzing’s most memorable moments involved a female named Paint, who always greeted Herzing with a particular behavior. “When Paint had her first calf, she taught the calf to do the same behavior, right in front of me,” Herzing recalls.
It’s easy to anthropomorphize such actions, but for scientists, objectivity must remain forefront. It is this professionalism that ultimately has led to such a useful body of work.
One of the project’s most robust successes has been in documenting what a stable and healthy pod of dolphins this Bahamian group has turned out to be. With so many cases of mysterious marine-mammal deaths, groundings and sickness, it is a welcome surprise to find just how consistent and successful the research subject pod has been.
“Compared with problems facing many dolphins around the world, I feel fortunate to work in such a unique environment,” says Herzing.
In fact, Herzing’s single greatest stressor during her 27 years of study occurred during 2004 and 2005, when back-to-back tropical-storm systems caused a loss of pod members. Some returned, but others did not. Since that time, the pod has been recovering and numbers are growing.
Last summer, Herzing again returned to the dolphin grounds, and her efforts will be renewed utilizing fresh techniques and technologies. Enthusiastic volunteers will once again be by her side to support this epic project, which will hopefully bring benefits to humans and dolphins alike for many generations to come. “I hope we can begin to appreciate the intricate lives of wild dolphins,” says Herzing. “I want people to understand that these dolphins are not just numbers in a book but are fully actuated individuals in a society, and deserve the right to live, have healthy family lives and be left in the wild to be dolphins.”
WHAT IS THE WILD DOLPHIN PROJECT? A long-term, noninvasive study of a specific pod of free-ranging Atlantic spotted dolphins designed to gather information on these dolphins, including behaviors, social structure, communication and habitat, and to report what has been learned to the scientific community and the general public. Find out more at wilddolphinproject.org.