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Citizens in Science – meet the Dolphin Watchers of Kangaroo Island

This blog post is written by volunteer Charlotte Foster, who has spent the past few months in Australia…

G’day! Two and a half months into my travels and it’s strange to think my time in Australia is up. This blog looks back over a particularly fond 6 days with citizen science-based project ‘Dolphin Watch’, the inspirational work they achieve, and what science can gain from them.

I first met the wonderful Tony and Phyll Bartram, Coordinators of Kangaroo Island Dolphin Watch, at the 3rd Annual International Conference for Marine Mammal Protected Areas in Adelaide. We got chatting, and I soon found myself getting very excited listening to Dolphin Watch stories and hearing about their work on the Island. Little was I to know that one week later I would be catching the ferry over to Kangaroo Island to be a part of the team(!)

Dolphin Watch is a community based project on Kangaroo Island (KI for short), which gathers information on a population of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) found off the South coast of Australia. The project was developed in conjunction with WDC’s Dr Mike Bossley of WDC Australasia and he continues to mentor it. The project is based on a simple idea; to collect information on the dolphins to increase our understanding of them and help protect them in the future. How the project achieves this is rather special. It recruits and trains volunteers from the local community in boat-based dolphin surveys – KI has its very own team of local dolphin scientists!

But why is this so exciting? A key factor lies in the fact that the research conducted by Dolphin Watch has never been done on this population of dolphins before. In fact, the bottlenose dolphins around KI are a bit of a mystery and there is a real potential for new scientific discoveries to be made. However, the main cause of my excitement is the project’s involvement of the community in its research. Citizen Science, or citizens taking part in science, has recently become a popular concept in environmental monitoring and forms the basis of the project. By using local volunteers, Dolphin Watch not only gets around the common issue of low funding and lack of scientists available for research, but also engages the public in protecting the marine environment in their own backyard. What better way to connect people to the marine environment than to give them first hand experiences in the field of marine science! The wonderful thing about Dolphin Watch is that you can really see the benefits for all involved; the dolphins gain the data, awareness and respect they need to hopefully provide them with protection in the future, whilst the people gain a huge sense of achievement and have the most wonderful time in the process. And what’s not to love? Dolphin Watch volunteers have the incredible opportunity to go out on a local dolphin tour boat to conduct surveys of wild dolphins around the beautiful KI coastline (certainly not a bad way to spend a free day or two in my book!).

Whilst on the Island, I had the amazing opportunity to join a team of volunteers on one of their surveys. The day began on the boat searching for those iconic dolphin tell-tale signs; fins, blows and splashes at the surface are always good places to start. It didn’t take long to find a pod, and soon we were ‘oo-ing’ and ‘aaw-ing’ as dolphins milled around us. The team jumped into action, grabbing their cameras to start capturing photos of the dolphins. The photo taking isn’t just for fun however, as photos of the dolphins’ dorsal fins are used to identify individuals in a popular scientific method known as “Photo I.D.”. The team also recorded other information including number and behaviour of the dolphins as well as habitat type and sea conditions; all incredibly valuable data that can help answer questions in the future. A little while later into the survey, we noticed that a dolphin known as “Ellisa” was carrying something in her mouth. The mystery item turned out to be a stingray! We couldn’t believe our eyes as we watched her carefully carry a stingray in her mouth with her calf at her side. To our knowledge, there have been no records of bottlenose dolphins feeding on stingrays before (only orca in New Zealand are regularly seen with stingray on their menus). So what was Ellisa doing? Was she curious and decided to play a “let’s catch a stingray” game? Was she teaching her calf the dangers of being around stingray? Or are these bottlenose in fact the first documented population to have a taste for stingray? (So many questions, too little time!). Naturally we were all very excited and had a great time going through the pictures and video footage after returning to base. What a thrilling encounter, and what a great example of how little we know about the dolphins around KI and the importance of the work that Dolphin Watch does. Thanks to the project, this possible undocumented behaviour can be shared with the scientific community and beyond, and help increase awareness of these complex animals.

So what lies ahead for this dedicated team of Dolphin Watchers? As the previous encounter has shown, the potential of the project is huge, and what they could achieve in the future is pretty exciting. Maybe it can find out answers to questions such as; exactly how many dolphins are there around KI? Is it a healthy population? Are they residential (living there all year round) or transient (just passing through the area)? Do they move elsewhere during different seasons? The list goes on, and in fact, Dolphin Watch has discovered that for each question that gets answered, several new ones appear.

It is clear to anyone that spends time with the project that Dolphin Watch has something very special. The team are a truly inspirational group and utterly committed to helping their local dolphins. If dolphins could be protected by good will and passion alone, this project would provide protection for dolphins the world over! Personally, I really believe in the power of Citizen Science, and Kangaroo Island Dolphin Watch really is a wonderful example of it in action.

I can’t thank the Dolphin Watch team enough for such a special week. Here’s to a marvellous project and the magnificent KI dolphins!