Spotting a wild dolphin jumping out of the water is one of the joys of living in the Tampa Bay area. No one knows some of our local dolphins better than the Eckerd College professor who has spent the past decade studying and listening to them.
Every summer, two to three times a week, Dr. Shannon Gowans, an associate professor of marine science and biology, heads out to Boca Ciega Bay looking for dolphins. She has a special permit from National Marine Fisheries that allows her to get closer to dolphins than the law allows.
"We search for them, and when we find a group, we try to approach them slowly. We try to stick with the dolphins until we get a good sense of their behavior and also we have good identification photographs of all of the dolphins," Dr. Gowans explained.
They identify the dolphins by their dorsal fins. That requires lots of taking pictures of sometimes elusive dolphins -- they surface, they dive. Now you see them; now you don't.
Gowans' team matches the photos using special software with a catalog of nearly 900 dolphins photographed in Boca Ciega Bay. Some are local residents, others are just passing through.
Some of the dolphins have been studied for 20 years or more. Dr. Gowans says a female dolphin they call 'Cupid,' has been photographed since 1997. When she disappeared for a while, they got worried.
"We really have a history with her," Gowans said. "We were very happy when all of a sudden she appeared back in the area after being gone for a couple of months."
Even the summer interns have their favorites. Brittany Evans of Georgia says she keeps an eye out for the dorsal fin of a dolphin called "QTQT."
"It has two little nicks on it that look almost like a W, she explained. "It's just great to be able to say, 'I know that dolphin!"
Dr. Gowans doesn't just watch dolphins, she listens to them. Using a special microphone called a hydrophone, she records the communications of dolphins in the bay -- their clicks and whistles, their echo location. All that acoustic information is providing critical clues into how the constant boat noise is effecting dolphin hearing.
She says stranded and beached dolphins have poorer hearing than free swimming dolphins.
"Just like humans that are exposed to loud sounds over and over again lose hearing, we suspect that dolphins do as well."
We can help by enjoying dolphins for a distance and slowing down our boats and personal watercraft when we see them.
"If you slow your engine down, that drops the noise down and you won't be disturbing them nearly as much," Gowans added.
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