This all-volunteer organization is dedicated to the protection of the bottlenose dolphin and our shared environment.
Story by Eddy Hoyle
“The bottlenose dolphin is the sentinel species of our coastal environment, like the canary in the mine shaft. If dolphins are sick, we will have problems, too,” explained Peach Hubbard, president of The Dolphin Project. “Humans and dolphins share our coastal environment – the same air, the same waters, the same seafood. So, what threatens the bottlenose dolphin also threatens us: disease, pollution and water contamination.”
Hubbard joined The Dolphin Project 21 years ago. The organization is the only all-volunteer, nonprofit dolphin photo-ID research organization in the United States. The Dolphin Project is dedicated to the protection of the bottlenose dolphin and our shared environment. Hubbard said there are other organizations that study dolphins, but they use government employees and/or university research students and professors.
Hubbard calls their 200 volunteers citizen scientists.
“We conduct serious research and have serious fun doing it,” she said. “Volunteers come from as far away as Atlanta, Florida, Oregon, Michigan, and Tennessee to enjoy an adventure while here.”
Joyce Albrecht moved to Hilton Head in 1993 from Illinois and wasn’t familiar with the marshes and estuaries of the Lowcountry. She joined The Dolphin Project 29 years ago as a volunteer photographer and is still active on the boats as a team member.
“I didn’t know what it was like on the water, so I tried it and never quit,” Albrecht said. “Over the years as we collect data, I’ve come to realize in our hearts that we are protecting not only the dolphins, but other species, too. Every little bit we do helps to protect and conserve our waterways.”
In the late 1980s, there was a massive die-off of coastal dolphins from New Jersey to Florida called an UME (Unusual Mortality Event). No one at that time had any data on the coastal dolphins in our area. This was the catalyst to found The Dolphin Project in 1989 to conduct photo-ID dolphin research on the estuarine waters of Georgia and lower South Carolina. Scientists established the scientific protocols, training classes and survey zones, and the project was staffed solely by volunteers.
The Dolphin Project conducts monthly surveys (except in December) in which a skipper, photographer, team leader, and an assistant travel through designated estuaries to spot, photograph, and document behaviors of bottlenose dolphins. Boats go out of Hilton Head and Coastal Georgia. One goal is to get clear photos of dorsal fins because the fins are like human fingerprints, no two are the same. Hubbard explained that even without nicks or notches caused by boats, bites or marine debris, their shapes are also unique. The other goals are to document latitude and longitude to study migration patterns, count the number of adults, infants and juveniles; and to document behaviors.
All viable photos and data are submitted to Duke University for entry into two databases: MABDC (Mid-Atlantic Marine Mammal Catalog) and OBIS-SEAMAP (Ocean Biogeographical Information System Spatial Ecological Analysis of Mega-vertebrate Populations) and are used for research purposes.
Volunteers have the opportunity to view playful antics and to observe how dolphins are also curious about us. Hubbard said that volunteers are trained to look for certain behaviors like leaps and jumps, foraging, mating, mudding (aka: strand feeding), traveling, congregating, playing, or spy hopping (when they pop their heads out of the water like a periscope to see what’s going on). She added that strand feeding is an amazing sight. The dolphins use teamwork to round up a school of fish, herd them onto mud flats at low tide and the dolphins take turns sliding out of the water onto the mud to catch and eat the fish.
“It’s never a bad day on the water,” Hubbard stated. “It’s unusual not to see a dolphin out there. The estuarine dolphins live here year-round. Dolphins mate throughout the year. The off-shore migratory bottlenose dolphins come in-shore to feed and often to get frisky with residential dolphins in late fall on their way to the Gulf, and again when they return in the spring.”
Dolphins have long been recognized for their complex behavior. Their brains are larger than human brains, they have social systems and use a series of clicks and whistles to communicate with their fellow dolphins.
Training is a requirement for participation on surveys. Training workshops consists of a 60-minute program to learn about the estuarine bottlenose dolphins and a 90-minute training program on how to be a research crew member. Hubbard said they are always looking for boat skippers, photographers and team leaders. There are also land-based opportunities to participate in community events and festivals, and to provide educational presentations to schools, community organizations and other interested groups.
For more information visit TheDolphinProject.org.
Join the fun
What: The Dolphin Project Research Training Workshop
When: 10 a.m., March 4
Details: The Dolphin Project is hosting an educational and entertaining dolphin program and training workshop via Zoom. Training will last under three hours and will consist of two parts. To participate in research surveys, both parts of the program must be completed. Register at TheDolphinProject.org.