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An Introduction to Dolphin Field Research

September 7, 2010

My task was a ‘focal follow,’ filming a group of 2 – 4 dolphins for 2 – 4 minutes while they are doing whatever they are doing so my footage could complement video data shot by Daisy Kaplan, the graduate student of my scientific advisor Diana Reiss, PhD. In the lovely turquoise waters around Bimini, Diana and Daisy were collecting data for research correlating acoustic and physical signals in Bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus) and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins (Stenella frontalis). Several students from the Hunter College Animal Behavior and Cognition program, where Diana is a professor, had joined the trip to assist in the research. I went to learn something about field research on dolphins for Dolphin Dance Project; and what better way to learn than by contributing to the data collection? So, although my camera could not record the high frequency sounds (audible to dolphins but not humans) that Daisy’s special rig did, I volunteered to to capture additional ‘focal follow’ footage for her. Well…I volunteered to TRY to capture ‘focal follow’ footage…

As I entered the water for my first attempt at filming, I was immediately approached by four calves, young Spotted Dolphins less than 4 years old, who had not yet gotten their spots. Tilly, a dolphin well-known to the dolphin boat (captained by Al Sweeting) and one whom I recognized from my trip here in June was in the lead. Tilly  is very recognizable as she has almost no dorsal fin, thanks to a run-in with a shark. As often occurs with Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, Tilly came up very close, eye to eye, inviting me to play (see video).

 While normally, I’d follow the invitation by diving down, in this instance I was only allowed to follow…no ‘dancing’ that might skew the data collection, so I just swam along side her, the camera pointed at her face. Tilly was so close, I knew the shot was not at all what Daisy wanted, but I didn’t feel as though I could move away and yet also stay ‘connected’ enough to follow with the camera. As I was pondering my dilemma, one of the other dolphins came up under Tilly, inverted, and started rubbing pectoral fins with Tilly. Tilly kept her eye on me, even as I moved away just a little, trying to get both dolphins’ faces in the frame. Ignored, the second dolphin swam away and Tilly started to dive down. Great, I thought…I’ll stay on the surface as instructed and this will put a little distance between us. But when Tilly saw I didn’t follow, she rose up again next to me, made a burst of bubbles from her blowhole and and slapped her tail three times on the water’s surface.

When I popped my head up, the crew were yelling warnings to me to stop following Tilly (even though I already had). I can’t blame them. Big bubbles and tail slaps are a dolphin’s way of indicating displeasure. I was feeling a bit shocked. I didn’t feel I was chasing Tilly, we were maintaining constant eye contact. In fact, I felt that I was trying to keep more of a distance than Tilly wanted to allow. As the dolphins swam away, I could see that Tilly had been with me, separate from the other three dolphins. I think if she were trying to get away from me, or didn’t want to be near me, she would have been with the other three dolphins. Back on the boat, I was chastised for being too close to Tilly…and I didn’t argue. But inside, I couldn’t help feeling that it was actually the opposite…that Tilly had expressed her dissatisfaction at my unwillingness to play.

Regardless who was ‘right’ about the interpretation of Tilly’s behavior, I knew that I had to keep a bigger distance between me and the dolphins if I wanted to get footage that could contribute to Daisy and Diana’s research. So the next day, I tried following a dolphin who didn’t approach me first. I thought maybe eye contact and proximity meant something to Tilly…and perhaps dolphins in general. I guessed that they meant, ‘let’s play!’ or at least, ‘let’s engage’. So I tried to avoid those signals from the beginning of the next ‘focal follow’.

As a young adult dolphin and calf came up to surface, I followed them first from behind where they couldn’t see me. I then maneuvered to their side, but far enough away so that their entire bodies were in the frame. The calf took ‘baby position’, swimming synchronously with its head under the adult’s belly. So sweet! I felt we had negotiated a very satisfactory distance for acquiring useful data.

Just as I was feeling very good about my ‘scientific’ footage, however, another bigger calf came between me and my subjects, peering into my eyes and into the camera lens. And then, appearing tail-first in my viewfinder…as if she had been waiting there for me to catch up…just in the right position to ‘ruin’ my ‘focal follow’…the chopped off dorsal fin…it was Tilly! There she was again, peering into my eyes. How could I not interpret her look as mischievous?

Tilly ‘ruined’ my shot, but I was happy and a bit relieved, of course. I felt as though Tilly was still my friend after I had not followed her invitation the day before. I know these are interpretations that cannot necessarily be validated scientifically…they are difficult to avoid when interacting with dolphins who are so engaging.

Later as we talked about how challenging the encounters were for me, Daisy responded with a comment that gave me pause. “Well, of course,” she said, “if you let the dolphins determine the distance, they’ll be right in your face.”

So then, I understood. As the researcher, YOU – the human – have to be the one to determine the distance (and if possible, type) of interaction, if you want to get the footage best suited for your data gathering. It can’t be left up to the dolphins. No wonder I had so much trouble…my usual intent is to negotiate a ‘leaderless’ dance of cooperation. If the dance must be led (and it sometimes is), I always want the dolphins to lead. To get a good ‘focal follow,’ however, I have to be more in the lead, even if it looks like I’m just following from a distance. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that…that’s not the kind of relationship I want to develop with the dolphins.

For the next couple of days, I filmed mostly Daisy. I shot footage that she can hopefully use for her grant applications – showing her in action, gathering data. I felt much more comfortable following Daisy. With the dolphins, I felt a bit like a sociopath – constantly avoiding interactions.

I learned not only about field research but a lot about dolphin biology and cognition during the trip. Each day before we set out on Al’s boat, Daisy and Diana  gave ‘lunch and learn’ lectures about dolphins. I was incredibly impressed with Diana’s enthusiasm when speaking and teaching about dolphins. After decades of studying them, dolphins are obviously still absolutely fascinating to her. Indeed, she struck me as having a mind much like a dolphin’s – quickly moving from one profound observation or topic to another. Like a dolphin she is also very gregarious, easy to approach, and so supportive – engaging her students in conversations that really seemed to feed their new and growing interest in dolphin field research. I had some great conversations with Diana, too…and I am looking forward to our continued work together studying dolphins in our respective ways.

Chisa behind the camera

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