If I dreamed up the perfect job (excluding the one I have now, of course), it would be just this: cruising in a boat on the Gulf all day in the sunny, temperate weather; searching for dolphins; watching them play; nurture each other; feed; socialize and communicate with each other.
There are fortunate people doing this very thing and the best part is, they're doing it for the benefit of the bottlenose dolphin population that live along the coast of Southwest Florida — and it's not as laid-back as it seems. Many, many hours were involved and data collecting and recording a meticulous, time-consuming endeavor.
Sea Excursions, Inc., is underwriting and managing the "Ten Thousand Islands Dolphin Project," which focuses on bottlenose dolphin quantities, locales, movement, association patterns and behavior.
No other study like this has been conducted in our area.
Aerial data has been collected, but the results from a sky view are insufficient for the objectives of this project, which are to determine the region's approximate population and disposition of these mammals; provide information to local, state and federal agencies; and increase the public's awareness of marine life, the environment and conservation by actually allowing "amateur scientists" participate in data collection.
The study of these intelligent, graceful creatures covers about 50 miles of coastline, bays and estuaries between Bonita Springs, Fla., and the boundaries of Everglades National Park. And the first phase of this undertaking, completed with the first report released recently, focused on our neighborhood, including the Marco River west of the Jolley Bridge to the entrance of the Gulf, north on the Intercoastal Waterway to Marker 44.
Fifty-two days were spent on the Dolphin Explorer, a 35-foot powered catamaran, directed by a local captain and crew who are educated in native marine life — as well as charter passengers out to enjoy a few hours on the glistening Gulf, scanning for friendly fins. The crew sighted dolphin every day, totaling 537! Of this population, 56 dolphin were individually identified, using digital photography (capturing distinctive features, markings, shape of their dorsal fins) and 202 re-sightings occurred.
"The use of digital photography ... has assisted in the research being first-rate," Kent Morse, naturalist and project manager, said. "Our analysis is being greatly enhanced through our conversion to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's FinBase computer software over the next month."
The highest concentration of dolphin sightings was in the Marco River and the northwest tip of Isles of Capri.
Twenty-one percent of these were feeding times at the by the Isles of Capri seawall.
The researchers recorded the dolphin sightings within 10 categories: Mill, when they're hanging around in one area with no distinct activity; Feed, when the dolphin is seen with a fish in its mouth; Probable feed; Travel; Play, usually when there is more than one; Rest; Leap/ Tailslap/Chuff — Leap (a single dolphin jumping out of the water, at times chasing fish), Tailslap (single or multiple dolphins and has several meanings, including "leave me alone"), Chuff (clearing water out of its blowhole, sometimes two or three times); Social, a group of dolphin together, often female adults and their calves nuzzling — dolphin like to touch each other, a way of bonding and forming relationships; With boat; and Other.
Several bottlenose dolphin seen again and again were named by the crew — and some passengers had the privilege of naming ones never documented before. A few of the nicknamed dolphin include Capt. Hook, Capri, Trigger, Flag, Mr. Clean, Sparky and Loner.
"Halfway," a female, and "Seymour," a calf, were sighted together more than any other combination of "identified" dolphin and seen with more named dolphin than any others as well. I take it that this mother-son combo is very social, especially hanging out with Loner.
A total of 99 calves were observed and recorded, including Button, Ripple, Baby Tattoo, Baby Emma and Seymour.
"Seeing dolphin on every trip ... was not only exciting for or passengers, but a good early indicator of the number of dolphin in the study area," said Chris Desmond, project director. "And it's like meeting your neighbors!"
Residents of Marco Island, Naples and Bonita Springs are invited to participate in this sensational project, including performing field research using their own vessels. Volunteers receive eight hours of class and field instruction.
The next interim report will be issued this month and will cover a separate area, although at least one survey trip a week will continue in our area.
The Dolphin Explorer offers two three-hour trips, Monday through Friday, departing at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. The price is $45 for adults, half-price for children and $40 for seniors. Call (239) 642-6899 for volunteer information or reservations.