By Natalie Strom
“Dolphin at five o’clock!” shouts a guest aboard The Dolphin Explorer vessel. Another brief sighting of a dorsal fin and Captain Chris Desmond turns the boat around to get a closer look. Meanwhile, on-board biologist and researcher, James Livaccari, prepares his camera and iPad to track the dolphin by photo and location. The twenty-plus guests on the boat watch in excitement as dolphins jump, play and swim in the wake of the boat. Just another day aboard The Dolphin Explorer of Marco Island.
Owned by Sea Excursions, The Dolphin Explorer runs out of the Marco River Marina seven days a week. The boat takes two four-hour trips: one at 9:00 AM and the other at 1:00 PM. Each voyage includes plenty of dolphin viewing, explanation on dolphin behavior, bird watching, a lesson on stone crabs, a short break for shelling along Keewaydin Island and a viewing of artifacts from the Calusa Indians who once inhabited areas of Southwest Florida.
What many guests of The Dolphin Explorer don’t realize at first is that they are actually a part of an ongoing dolphin study. Launched on February 1, 2006, The 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project is a long term study of the abundance, distribution, movement, association patterns and behavior of bottlenose dolphins of Southwest Florida. “Our research project is really two-fold.” explains Captain Chris Desmond. “One is to determine, over time, whether or not the population of dolphins in the area is remaining stable. Five or six years of research is truly only the beginning point in determining this. The second goal is to monitor the health of the local dolphins.”
Desmond and his three crew members, James Livaccari, Kent Morse and Kristen Froelich, all take turns manning The Dolphin Explorer, which is one of five active field research areas. The other areas, which do not involve the public, lie between Bonita Beach to the north and Everglades City to the south. Encompassing about 50 nautical miles, this is the only active dolphin study in Southwest Florida.
With hard work and extreme dedication to the project, the team of four has been able to identify and catalog over 280 dolphins thus far. As each dolphin can be identified by its dorsal fin, which acts as a “finger print,” the crew has given each dolphin a name, most of which were chosen by passengers aboard The Dolphin Explorer. Every dolphin encountered is photographed and plotted using GPS readings from the boat. Thanks to the onboard iPad, an interactive program specially designed for the project allows the team to upload sightings as they occur.
As passengers aboard The Dolphin Explorer are actually paying to fund the research, the goal of the team is to incorporate the study into the boating excursion. “We have found that there are two ways that passengers can be involved in the research. One is simply the sighting of dolphins. But that has proven to be an enormous benefit to us because it’s really demonstrated that when you have extra eyes looking for dolphins, you’re always going to see them. The second is that they enjoy taking the photographs, checking the catalogs and assisting in identification,” explains Desmond.
As members of the team photograph each dolphin spotted, an onboard printer assists in identification. Photographs of dorsal fins are handed out to passengers who can peruse through a catalog of “named” dolphins to see if they can find that specific dolphin.
This idea leads to “the other side of the project which deals with education on the boat as well as education in the classroom,” adds Desmond. Education on the boat comes in many forms. First of all, the fact that a dorsal fin is like a finger print, is a new concept to many. Yet, much more is included as the naturalist aboard the boat explains dolphin behavior as it occurs. Passengers also receive a lesson on the bird life in the area as well as tips regarding conservation.
One of the most important lessons that passengers walk away with is NEVER to feed wild dolphins. “The worst thing is to feed them because this causes lots of things to happen. They start hanging out and shadowing fishing boats which causes a greater danger for them to become tangled in the lines. From other studies we’ve seen that they lose the ability to feed themselves and the calves they raise lose the ability. Then we lose the ability to observe wild dolphins,” adds Kent Morse, Resident Naturalist and Manager of Photo-Identification/Data Analysis for the project.
This important lesson spans much further than the deck of The Dolphin Explorer. Currently reaching two elementary schools in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, the team has created a revolutionary, interactive learning module that has proven to be both successful and educational.
Teacher, Susan Kosko, of Crafton Elementary School, can attest to this fact. After boarding The Dolphin Explorer on vacation, Kosko, Desmond and the rest of the team, began to put together a series of 80 presentations all based on the dolphins around Marco Island and their habitat. These presentations span the entire school year. With each comes a live Skype session aboard The Dolphin Explorer. Livaccari delivers 15 minute, interactive lessons three days a week using the same iPad that helps track each dolphin. Kids are encouraged to ask questions during these chats. Each Skype session coincides with a prezi (similar to a PowerPoint presentation) and a word search, all designed by the crew of The Dolphin Explorer, with help from Kosko.
Kosko has used this tool not only to teach marine biology and conservation to her second through fourth grade students, but also to help them get excited about reading.
Her students, who were reading below grade level, have shown significant improvement in their overall reading skills as well as their desire to read. “The program rigors have resulted in benefits that have activated student thinking and build a background for future reading assignments. Not only are the students engaged in relevant instruction, but they have also gained an appreciation of reading and an innate sense of belonging to a very important team. It is this intrinsic motivation derived from the project that is compelling students to read more willingly in class and independently,” explains Kosko.
“It is a joy seeing students run into your classroom because they are eager to see what they will be learning for the day,” she adds. “I no longer approach a new day with the perspective of the obstacles I have ahead of me, but rather, what “real” measurable learning can I help my students to acquire.”
Given the success of the two ongoing learning programs in Pennsylvania, Desmond and the rest of the team hope to reach out to more schools. “We have a major program that just started, branching out to large education publishers as well as hundreds of elementary schools across the United States,” explains Desmond. Kosko is also helping to develop this program by sharing her language arts portion. Dolphin journals, the reading of the junior novel of “Dolphin Tale” and other aspects of her program will be shared with interested schools.
“This program is revolutionary. It’s the only one of its kind that is done, on an ongoing basis, from the field. This is a full year program. However, the right packaging for some schools may only be for 12 weeks, so we are designing programs for that as well,” adds Desmond.
Feedback from other schools should come within the next few months. Depending upon the volume of interested schools, The Dolphin Explorer will have to come up with ways to fit the program to the needs of each school; something they are more than happy to do. As advances in technology increase, so will the team’s methods of teaching.
“The four of us are taking on a Goliath,” adds Desmond. But they are excited about it. “We all see it. It’s amazing when you have a product that you can do so much with as well as a team as dedicated as ours.” That dedication has proven true as a number of Kosko’s students have made the trek to Marco Island with their families in order to board The Dolphin Explorer.
You, too, can board The Dolphin Explorer, without having to make such a long journey. Visit www.dolphin-study.com to book your expedition, read The Dolphin Explorer blog, or track the activities of the local Marco Island dolphin population. Whatever you decide to do, be prepared to learn a thing or two regarding conservation and dolphin activity.