Undersea Observations with The Wild Dolphin Project

The local conservation group has been studying the behavior of dolphins for 40 years

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Atlantic spotted dolphins. Photo by Ruth Petzold
Atlantic spotted dolphins. Photo by Ruth Petzold

Before Dr. Denise Herzing had “Dr.” affixed to her name, she was a young girl fascinated with the animal mind and an admirer of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Cynthia Moss. “All these women had planted themselves in a natural environment to observe a nonhuman animal society,” says Herzing. “I thought, ‘I could do that with dolphins.’” 

At The Wild Dolphin Project, she has been doing just that since 1985. Herzing started the project in Jupiter and now runs the org out of North Palm Beach. Every summer, her team of researchers, students, and volunteers observe and report on dolphin communities in the shallow Bahamian waters. The rest of the year, they identify species off the coast of Palm Beach County. Their research has led to a rich baseline of information on Atlantic spotted and bottlenose dolphins, which they have shared with the scientific world and disseminated in mainstream media outlets like National Geographic and NPR. “Ours was the first group to really focus on the Atlantic spotted,” says Herzing. “We’ve been able to track the same individuals over decades and watch them grow up, have babies, and become grandmothers.” Wild Dolphin has also been involved in the rehabilitation and release of injured dolphins. Here, Herzing shares some facts about these friendly creatures. 

Dr. Denise Herzing studies a group of Atlantic spotted dolphins. Photo courtesy The Wild Dolphin Project
Dr. Denise Herzing studies a group of Atlantic spotted dolphins. Photo courtesy The Wild Dolphin Project

They are well trained in socialization. Early in life, spotted dolphins learn everything from foraging to courtship from watching their mother. Once they move into “juvenile groups,” they chase fish together, learn how to fight, and start interacting with older dolphins in the community, says Herzing.

Mothers give birth every three to four years. A female is typically impregnated for the first time around age 9 or 10 and can have 10 offspring during her lifetime (which spans about 40 years; males often live into their early fifties). 

A bottlenose dolphin crater-feeds in the sand. Photo by Liam McPherson
A bottlenose dolphin crater-feeds in the sand. Photo by Liam McPherson

For males, age has its advantages. Wild Dolphin discovered a noninvasive technique for collecting fecal matter that has allowed them to gather DNA for paternity tests. “We know that older males in the community sire the most offspring,” Herzing says. Although younger males often fight and compete for females’ attention, they seem to just be rehearsing for future conquests. Says Herzing: “They rarely sire offspring.” 

They are being displaced. In 2013, Wild Dolphin observed a food crash that led to the movement of half of a pod’s members and has been studying how the displaced individuals adjust to local dolphins in their new home. Not to mention the big threats they face from overfishing, pollution, and net entanglement. “Humans have to become more sensitive to how we do things,” says Herzing. “We have to keep thinking about creative new ways to help the natural world.”

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