Dolphin jumping in the sea

My research internship with dolphins!

After applying and securing the seven-week research internship for Sea Watch Foundation (SWF) at the start of the year, in September 2021, I headed to New Quay. New Quay is in West Wales (not Cornwall!) which was a new discovery for me! Sea Watch Foundation are a marine conservation charity that work nationally collecting data and promoting citizen science from UK coastlines.

The internship in New Quay is dedicated to their long-term project monitoring the dolphins of Cardigan Bay. This has been in place since 2000 and is recognised as the largest dolphin monitoring project in Europe. This project and its dedicated work have enabled two Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) to be introduced to Cardigan Bay, successfully providing protection not only for the semi-resident dolphin population, but for the diverse marine habitat associated with the bay.

The weather in the first week of my internship provided the perfect conditions for three dedicated boat surveys. These surveys involved being at sea for 12 hours collecting data using a line transect survey method. SWF work in collaboration with a certified boat company called ‘Dolphin Spotting Boat Trips’ who are based in New Quay and they provide a charted boat for these surveys to take place. There were eight research interns including myself and two members of SWF staff that were tasked with the surveying. This meant that the five different roles were rotated each hour to enable ample breaks to avoid the dreaded observer fatigue! During breaks it was totally respectable to have a nap or sunbathe but, as I am ever the professional and obsessed with the ocean, I would always be sat up front watching the waves (and hoping to get some good dolphin footage!)

Now for the science bit … as soon as the boat sets sail effort data is collected and is then collected every 15 minutes throughout the entire survey. Effort data is environmental data, most notably the sea state, swell, wind direction, rain, and glare. These conditions are important to record. If the sea state is greater than a 4 on the Beaufort scale the data is deemed unusable, and the survey would be called off.  The other 4 survey roles were 2 x primary observers (POs) and 2 x independent observers (IOs). The POs were located at the front of the boat left and right scanning 100° it is the POs job to be the first to see any sightings. The IOs are located at the rear left and right of the boat and record sightings verifying with the POs.

My favourite role was as a PO. It was my first role on my first survey, and I couldn’t believe it when my first sighting within half an hour on effort was a harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). As a species they are very allusive and, unlike other cetacean species, they are very small, actively avoid boats and are a challenge to ID! Sadly, I fear we peaked too early with that sighting. After 6 hours of surveying, we didn’t have any further sightings. Having spent some time in South Africa taking part in terrestrial mammal surveys, I knew that sightings and encounters were not guaranteed, wild animals are of course unpredictable. However, whilst on PO duty and just as I started to feel disheartened a fin flashed on the horizon! I yelled “DOLPHIN!!” and quickly scribbled down the data needed (co-ordinates, angle from boat, speed, distance and heading direction). Excitement built onboard and we signalled to the skipper to cut the engine. All crew waited with binoculars at the ready, scanning the horizon waiting for another fin sighting.

As air-breathing mammals bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates) must resurface regularly, making re-sighting a definite occurrence but you must demonstrate patience! Bottlenose dolphins on average resurface every 7 minutes but this can be higher if they are foraging. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait for long and three fins appeared in unison with a glorious expulsion of air, and we went off transect to take fin photos for the photo ID database. Photo-ID is a huge part of SWF’s work as they have been able to successfully ID 200 individuals over the course of the project. This type of data is vital to monitoring population dynamics, social structures, and species life history. As we got closer, the dolphins approached us and began bow riding. I couldn’t contain my excitement (which is captured on my phone video footage!) We travelled slowly and the dolphins stayed with us for a short time – you could hear their signature clicks as the communicated to each other. It was an incredible experience. Luckily this was the first of many for the entirety of my internship and I can honestly say that you never get tired of seeing a dolphin no matter how many times it happens.

The dedicated boat surveys were not the only time we got to be on the water. Each week all the interns had a day allocated to go on board one of the Dolphin Spotting Boat Trips and collect survey data whilst tourists were taken out. We would sit on the roof of the boat and would be responsible for collecting all the effort and sightings data (whilst also getting to hear about the local attractions and the local wildlife delivered by the onboard crew). I thoroughly enjoyed the boat days, it was almost certain that you would see dolphins, seals and get to test your sea legs whilst holding on during large swells! Whilst up on the roof it was also guaranteed that a little visitor in the shape of a very greedy herring gull (Larus argentatus) would come and peck at your pockets. The crew amusingly named him ‘Steven Seagull’.

New Quay is famous for its coastline. Sandy beaches, a steep coastal path and a perfectly positioned harbour wall enables dolphin spotting from land very accessible. As research interns, land watches occurred all day, every day in 2hour shifts between 7am-7pm. When I arrived in September the dolphins had been absent from the bay for a few weeks, so sightings weren’t as frequent as they had been throughout the summer months. However, as the mackerel arrived in early October so did the dolphins! Predominantly mothers and calves but also some all-male pods that often-displayed acrobatic behaviours for all those fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. It was quite the spectacle. Although, I think the intense social behaviours on show were highly likely to be sexual behaviours! Male dolphins are particularly affectionate with one another as way of ‘practicing’ for when they encounter a female.

On land watch, duties involved collecting effort data, recording boat activity and any sightings too. This was also an opportunity to engage with members of the public, discuss all things dolphins and birds. Birds ID is not one of my strengths, so I quickly brushed up on my knowledge as well as learning the art of saying a species ID with enough confidence that people believed me!

With all the data and sightings information being collected we as research interns were tasked with inputting this on to SWF’s extensive database. This was not everyone’s favourite role, but I have a soft spot for excel spreadsheets and data entry, so I happily took on this role when given the opportunity! Other office-based duties included outreach and photo ID, the latter was my least favourite. This surprised me because, as a previous professional photographer and retoucher, I thought this would be relatively interesting and quite easy. In fact, it was very difficult to photo match dolphin fins. Some individuals have distinguishable notches and rake marks; however these can change and vary regularly with such a social and tactile species.

Completing the internship for SWF was an invaluable experience. I was able to learn marine-based field skills and test my sea legs which I am pleased to say were very sturdy. New Quay is a wonderful place to spend so much time, not only did I see dolphins every day, I also managed to run and hike along the unforgiving coastal paths, spend time on sandy beaches and go to the pub quiz at the Seahorse every Thursday! I would encourage anyone interested in cetacean research, marine conservation, and biology to apply for an internship for a well-established organisation like SWF. They take volunteers each year in 4 intervals and will be recruiting soon.


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