Marine Research: “It’s Always Been Dolphins.”

by Liah Laila McPherson
Undergraduate Researcher
class of 2019

It’s always been dolphins. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by their lives and intelligence. What’s going on in their complex brains? How and what do they communicate with each other? What are they thinking about as they glide past and look you in the eye? These are questions that I share with Dr. Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project (WDP), who has been studying wild Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) in the Bahamas for nearly 35 years. As a former intern for the project, I was invited back this summer to assist with six 10-day research trips aboard the project’s 62ft power catamaran, the RV Stenella.

In the crystalline waters surrounding Grand Bahama and Bimini the Wild Dolphin Project performs non-invasive underwater research to study the ecology, behavior, and communication of dolphins. We don’t harass, chase, or touch the dolphins, and all interactions are voluntary— the dolphins have their own agenda and will disappear in a heartbeat or evade us completely if they want to. Often, they’re interested in or at least accepting of our company and will spend anywhere from three minutes to three hours zooming around us in the water or simply allowing us to peer into their daily lives.

My typical day on Stenella begins shortly after sunrise when I bring the camera gear outside on the deck and prepare for the day’s research. Following breakfast (and a quick morning swim, weather permitting), I take my coffee up to the bridge of the boat and scan the horizon for dolphins as we lift anchor and begin our search. If it’s bottlenose dolphins we find, we photograph them from the surface for identification, as they tend not to stick around when we enter the water. We sometimes take surface shots of spotted dolphins too, but most of our data is gathered underwater with cameras and hydrophones as we record their behavior and vocalizations. Every evening I spend time entering and analyzing data on the computers.

Depending on which individuals we find during the day and what behaviors they’re exhibiting, I am responsible for either photographing or videoing the dolphins underwater. All of the dolphins have names and are identifiable by their spot patterns and features such as fin and body scars. They have “names” of sorts within their own communication system as well— these are known as signature whistles, and each dolphin has its own unique whistle. The video cameras we use are outfitted with hydrophones to record these whistles and other complex vocalizations. Underwater we record a wide variety of behaviors such as foraging, courtship, play and aggression. Sometimes they’ll even imitate humans or play with us!

Wild Dolphin Project’s motto is “In their world, on their terms…”— it’s important to note that all of our interactions with wild dolphins are non invasive and solely for research purposes. WDP has attained Bahamian research permits to study these animals. Please be respectful of wild dolphins and whales in US and Bahamian waters; it is illegal to approach and swim with them without a permit.

I first decided to attend UNC for my undergraduate education, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to pursue marine biology as I wished, given that the Marine Science department is small, and the university isn’t located near the ocean. However, the experience and connections I have gained so far are invaluable. The marine science classes I’ve taken at UNC have been of the highest caliber, and I’ve been fortunate to participate as an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Adrian Marchetti’s phytoplankton lab for three semesters. Now, I’m in Bermuda to participate in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program funded by the National Science Foundation. Until mid November, I’ll be conducting an independent research project, studying the light use efficiency of coral reef communities under the mentorship of professors Dr. Yvonne Sawall and Dr. Eric Hochberg. I was encouraged to apply by Dr. Marchetti, and was selected as one of eight students to attend this program. Without being involved in the Marine Science program at UNC, I would have never even discovered this opportunity.

My greatest aspiration has always been to study dolphins and the marine environment they live in. With enough determination, I think everyone has the potential to chase their dreams, and there’s no better nursery for those dreams than a university like UNC. College is whatever you make of it, and studying Marine Science at Carolina is no exception.