Assuring Volunteers Can Safeguard Dolphins

Before Earthwatch sends volunteers into the field on an expedition, there are a ton of details to arrange. Caroline Dunn is an Earthwatch program manager who conducts pre-fielding visits so that volunteers can be assured a once-in-a-lifetime experience, while scientists can be assured that research gathered meets their needs. Caroline just returned from Costa Rica where a new expedition will take place in 2013: Safeguarding Whales & Dolphins. Her experiences need to be shared!

Photo ID'ing Bottlenose Dolphins

Photo ID’ing Bottlenose Dolphins

Caroline used to live in Costa Rica. She first went there for Outward Bound in 1999, and then studied there for a semester while in college. She followed that up with three more internships there. Since graduation in 2003, Caroline’s returned about once a year to visit friends and enjoy the beauty of the country. But the pre-fielding trip was her first visit on behalf of Earthwatch.

“Since I’ve been to Costa Rica several times since college, I was pretty comfortable returning. But I had never been to Gulfo Dulce where this expedition will take place. It’s like the tropical paradise you see in postcards. It’s completely remote. You take a puddle hopper plane to get there, and you don’t see many visitors. It feels really untouched. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and in contrast to other places in Costa Rica that are well traveled by tourists. The tourism and crowds hasn’t happened yet in Gulfo Dulce.”

I asked Caroline to describe her time there, and what her responsibilities were.

“The primary purpose of a pre-fielding trip is to conduct risk assessment, venue assessment and to train scientist on working with volunteers. For instance, are the accommodations clean, and how many people will be in a room? What are the vehicles that will be used for transportation? Do they all have seatbelts? Are the boats in good condition? Do they have enough life vests? What is the captain like? We also like to build relationships with the scientist, who in this case is Lenin Oviedo.”

While that sounded interesting, I must admit, I was more curious about the dolphin research.

Safeguarding Dolphins in Gulfo Dulce
Examining dolphin behavior is longitudinal research, research conducted over time, with the hope of gathering enough data to help provide evidence to support a marine protection policy.

Male Bottlenose Dolphins in Gulfo Dulce

Male Bottlenose Dolphins in Gulfo Dulce

 Behavior Sampling
“The way it works is we cruise around in a boat, which was extremely pleasant because the water is calm and flat. We’d scan the water and stop every half hour, or whenever we’d see dolphins. When we saw dolphins, we’d record their location via GPS, the time, and what they are doing. Perhaps they were foraging for food, or mating, or traveling – these are names of the behavior events that scientists use. The dolphins could be resting, or playing. We’d get a sense of water conditions and what the dolphins are doing. We did this in several areas to identify critical habitat so that Gulfo Dulce can ultimately be better protected.”

Photo ID of Dolphins
“One of the reasons this is done is to identify individual dolphins and determine if the dolphin populations that use the Gulf are contained. In other words, these dolphins fully depend on the Gulf, all year long, because it’s their home.  Identifying individual dolphins also helps to identify diseases and help find the source to mitigate the cause. For instance, disease could be caused from run-off of agricultural chemicals from nearby coastal development into river mouths where dolphins hang out. Or, dolphins could bring it back to the Gulf when they return from migration.”

Focal species of dolphins (photo credit: Lenin Oviedo)

Focal species of dolphins (photo credit: Lenin Oviedo)

Longitudinal Research Goes Full Circle
“It really is a full circle. There is the Gulf and the dolphins. And there are the individuals who own the accommodations. Their son is field team leader on the expedition and helps with the research. And the lead scientist met the accommodation owners while doing research. And there’s the captain of the boat. The area is just so important to the community. Everything is so intertwined. And the volunteers will get to experience it all.”

Building El Chontal from the Ground Up
“A gentleman named Jorge and his wife Susi own and operate El Chontal, which are the accommodations where guests will be staying. They are also the parents of David, the field team leader on the expedition who support Lenin Oviedo. Jorge had grown up there on a farm in a tiny town with less than 10 kids in the local school. There isn’t much tourism because it is so removed from the ports.

One day, a foreigner on a kayak pulled up looking for a place to stay. Susi didn’t want to turn him away. Later, Susi thought maybe she could do this on a larger scale. So Susi and Jorge together built El Chontal, personally building all the cabins and planting the gardens. It’s rustic, and artistically very beautiful. They blow a conch shell when it is meal time, and you go and eat at their house. Susi is an amazing cook, making typical Costa Rican meals, and never the same thing twice. Their location is used by international visitors from around the world, largely who are there to do dolphin research.

Cabin and Garden at El Chontal, Built by Jorge & Susi (photo credit: Christine Figgener)

Cabin and Garden at El Chontal, Built by Jorge & Susi (photo credit: Christine Figgener)

Meeting the Lead Scientist
“Lenin Oviedo met Jorge and Susi while doing field research there in 2007 and they’ve been friends and colleagues ever since. Lenin is enthusiastic and laughs constantly. He is eager to share his research, and it is clear that while he is from Venezuela, he has bonded with all the locals. He takes care of everybody on the project, and gives credit where credit is due.”

The Captain and His Dolphins
 “The boat you take to scout dolphins and whales is called Tobago, and its Captain is also named Tobago. He is highly respected and skilled. When there is an emergency, people call him instead of the Coast Guard. In the community, people even consider the dolphins ‘his dolphins.’ When other boats come along, they ask for Tobago’s permission before they approach them. People radio to him all the time: ‘Tobago, I saw your dolphins over here, or over there.’ He has enabled several PhDs to come out of Gulfo Dulce, because without him, many of them couldn’t have completed their research. And of course, he brings you little pastries every day out on the boat.”

In speaking to Caroline, what struck me was how amazing her experience was, all while still in the process of perfecting the details for volunteers and their upcoming experience. I can only imagine what this expedition will be like come March, once details have been fully vetted, and the whales return from their migration to join the dolphins in the Gulf.

(Wait about 15 seconds to see dolphins leaping! Sorry for the lack of sound. Video credit: Caroline Dunn)