Fins Up!

A day on the water with Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research

On a sunny, breezy day toward the end of May, a pontoon boat bounces across the whitecaps on the Roanoke Sound, heading south from Whalebone Junction in search of some of the Outer Banks’ most charismatic residents: bottlenose dolphins. The boat is filled with people from all over the country (okay, today they’re mostly all from Ohio, but that’s still a long way from the Outer Banks!) eager to catch a glimpse of these storied marine mammals. There’s no guarantee that dolphins will be found during the tour, but that just serves as a reminder that these are wild animals, and seeing them in their natural habitat is a very special thing. 

jessican and cptn john

Captain John Kerner and Jessica Taylor on the Nags Head Dolphin Watch boat. Photo Sue Colao

It’s hard to say how long bottlenose dolphins have been coming to the Roanoke Sound because until the late 1990s there was no long-term monitoring of bottlenose populations on the Outer Banks. That’s when a group of volunteers got together to form Nags Head Dolphin Watch and began identifying the dolphins that frequented the Roanoke Sound in the summer. They created an extensive photo-identification project that continues today, and started to track dolphin behavior and environmental conditions so that future researchers could compare changes. Then, in 2008, Jessica Taylor and her husband, Jay, incorporated the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research (OBXCDR), a volunteer-run, non-profit organization. The organization seeks “to learn more about the population ecology, movement patterns, and behavior of coastal bottlenose dolphins in the Outer Banks, and to expand public knowledge and concern for these marine mammals.” Biologists with OBXCDR work with other scientists and wildlife experts up and down the East Coast to maintain a thorough log of Atlantic bottlenose dolphin activity and trends. 

While the dolphins may seem like the stars of this story – and they are, in their own right – there would be no story without people like Jessica. Originally from New Jersey, she graduated from Rutgers University with a B.S. in Marine Sciences and from Duke University with a M.E.M. (Master of Environmental Management) with a Coastal Management concentration. Her master’s research focused on studying foraging behaviors of bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota, Florida. Since finishing her master’s, Jessica has participated in research projects focusing on Stellar sea lion photo identification, bottlenose dolphin genetic sampling, and bottlenose dolphin stomach content analysis. She’s worked as a naturalist for Nags Head Dolphin Watch since 2007, was the OBXCDR’s scientific advisor from 2008 to 2012, and has been the president of OBXCDR since 2013. Her current research focuses on examining the population dynamics of bottlenose dolphins in the Roanoke Sound and their seasonal movements to other areas. 

Out on the water, it’s clear that Jessica is passionate about her work. “We’re not getting paid,” she laughs. “The dolphins are the reason we do this.” 

What makes these dolphins so special? Besides their gregarious nature that endears them to so many, dolphins are particularly important to the environment because they’re known as an “indicator species.” Bottlenose dolphins are apex predators, meaning that they’re at the top of the food chain. If a group of unhealthy dolphins is observed, or if the dolphins are changing their behavior in a way that indicates some kind of upset in the environment, then this issue has probably already impacted other marine life and has become enough of a problem to warrant intense observation, if not intervention. Conversely, healthy dolphins that are thriving and reproducing signify an environment that is sustaining a diverse and healthy collection of marine life. 

Onion sm

Onion has been coming to the Roanoke Sound for at least two decades and is easily recognizable due to his unique dorsal fin. Photo Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research.

Bottlenose dolphins can live up to 50 years in the wild, and they develop lifelong breeding, feeding, and socialization habits that make them the perfect candidates for long-term studies and observation. Many of the dolphins that frequent the Roanoke Sound during the summertime have been coming to this area for decades, and are well known among OBXCDR volunteers. They are identified by their dorsal fins, and experienced researchers like Jessica can spot and name them the split second they surface for air. One male, Onion, has been a documented visitor on the Outer Banks every summer for the last 20 years, along with at least 100 other members of his extended dolphin family. Female groups are dynamic, with members coming and going frequently, while male dolphins form bonded pairs who stick together until one of the pair dies (at which point the surviving dolphin will find another male to bond with). Nursery groups with calves are common sights in the protected waters of the sound too. 

The trips with Nags Head Dolphin Watch serve several purposes, and the biggest of those isn’t just giving vacationers a thrill. The experience is filled with fun, hands-on learning, and everything centers on a message of conservation. Even if no dolphins are spotted, passengers are sure to leave the tour with a newfound respect for all marine life and the fragile ecology of the Outer Banks. From the moment the boat leaves the dock, Jessica, along with Captain John, narrates the trip, discussing everything from water quality to the history of commercial fishing in Wanchese. Passengers are exposed to a side of the Outer Banks that’s not often seen by anyone except locals, and there are many murmurs of “Wow, I had no idea” during the journey. Along the way, Jessica takes questions from the tour participants and sprinkles fun anecdotes about the dolphins into the science lesson. Learning that a female bottlenose named Fatlip likes to swim in circles (and how much more difficult that makes Captain John’s job) endears her to passengers before she’s even spotted. That personal connection makes Jessica’s job of driving home the conservation message easier, and it hopefully makes enough of an impact that passengers go home and tell their friends and family about Fatlip and this amazing place she calls home. 

On the trip back to Whalebone Junction, science really comes to life. This is when Jessica invites several children to help her check the water temperature and salinity as well as the air temperature and wind speeds. She writes everything down in a research log that will eventually be shared with marine biologists along the East Coast. If dolphins were seen she writes that down too, including which individuals were present and what kinds of behavior they were displaying. All this information can be compared and contrasted with data from previous years and different locations to paint a big picture of dolphin life on the Eastern Seaboard. Jessica is sure to explain this to her assistants, and she takes the time to make sure they fully understand the significance of what they’re doing on the tour. 

jessica and kids

Young passengers help measure water salinity and wind speed, which Jessica Taylor then writes down on her research log. These tests are performed and recorded each time the Nags Head Dolphin Watch goes out on a tour. Photo Sue Colao

Jessica also talks animatedly about what OBXCDR does off the water to promote awareness and conservation. Since not everyone can visit for a dolphin tour, volunteers do outreach at local events and schools, and Jessica even Skypes into classrooms all over the country to talk about dolphins and protecting marine environments. Each fall the organization sponsors a shrimp cook-off, which raises most of their yearly operating funds. They also rely on donations, and people can “adopt” one of the Roanoke Sound dolphins, the proceeds of which go toward the costs of running the research project. 

“What people love is what they’re going to conserve. One person does something, another person does something – it really does make a difference,” Jessica says. 

It’s easy to see those lifelong connections being made. Children’s eyes light up when the dolphins are spotted. “It’s like Bubble Guppies!” one little girl, Sabrina, exclaims, relating her experience on the tour to her favorite cartoon. Getting to observe the dolphins in their natural habitat and then doing hands-on science with Jessica on the bow of the boat sparks an interest in the natural world that these kids will hopefully carry with them forever. And with the advocacy and the ongoing hard work of people like Jessica, dolphins will continue to call the Outer Banks their summer home for generations to come. 

For more information about the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, or if you’d like to make a donation or adopt a dolphin, visit their website at obxdolphins.org.♦

Meg Puckett is a social media specialist and freelance writer who is passionate about conservation and promoting respect for the natural world.

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