Walvis Bay, Namibia
I am reflecting upon the past 20 years as I look out over the Atlantic ocean and see the desert sand blowing from the dunes into the water. The place I am in now is actually very similar to my beloved California coast. If I close my eyes I can see it. Yet I am so far away. I am working on a poulation of bottlenose dolphins that lives along the coastline here in Namibia and in a manner very similar to the California dolphins that my project of 20 years has been studying. Except that these dolphins live in a much less congested and overcrowded coastline. However, development is arriving here as well and the dolphins are going to be facing the same threats and the same challenges the California coastal dolphins have already faced, and are facing every day: pollution from noise and chemicals, encroaching of their habitat by fishing gear, ship traffic, pleasure crafts and mining andindustrial operations. Humanity loves to repeat itself over and over....
In the past year I have been working non-stop to try to collate the data that Okeanis has been collecting over the years since its inception, and all the information that came before Okeanis was even founded. I guess I have been around longer than the organization itself, and my intention has always been to tell the story of the California dolphins. I never realized when I started that this would be a lifetime endeavour. These dolphins have accompanied me through life like a family, and have seen my development as a scientist and as a person. They survived with me heartbreaks and divorce, relocations and unemployment and all of life's little joys and sorrows. And after 20 years, we are still working together the dolphins and I, to try to understand each other, and to patch together a story of their life along the California coast.
Althoug we cannot exactly talk o each other in words the dolphins are nonetheless telling me their story through the photographs I have collected. Each photograph of a dolphin's dorsal fin is a map. It tells you the identity of the dolphin by looking at the nicks and notches found along the trainling edge (the back) of the dorsal. It tells you about the scars on the dolphin body. Sometime their shape and position reveals the story about the interactions a dolphin had, a wound from a shark bite, a collision with a sharp object, an altercation with another dolphin. Even the number of rakemarks from other dolphins' teeth can sometime tell me about the status of the animal in a hyerarchy. If a wound is fresh I can tell this from the photo as well, and I can look at sequences of photos of the same animal over the years to find out how long it takes for scars to heal.
California dolphins are affected by a variety of skin conditions which show as coloration patterns (often fungal in nature) or scabs and pustules on the body or round marks that become red and infected. California dolphins seem to suffer from a herpes-like condition, a form of pox-virus, which shows up on their body as round marks with either dark or light edges. What we are finding by looking at sequences of photos of the same individual over the years is that this condition seems to be latent in the animal, just like herpes is in people. Remember those stressful times at the office that caused that painful sore to come out on your mouth? Well, this seems to be the same thing that happens to the dolphins. One year their skin appears fine and the next year they are affected by a severe skin condition.
Our data indicates that there are periods of time when more dolphins appear to show this condition. Could it be stress? We are investigating this more closely because we do not know yet the exact relationship between the condition and the status of an animal. We do know that water temperature changes can cause stress, so as an animal moves from warmer to colder waters like these dolphins do (moving from San Diego to San Francisco on a regular basis now), the skin can undergo chemical changes that may cause stress. But there are other possible stressors, such as the contaminants that these animals are exposed to.
We have collected 46 skin and blubber samples for these animals to analyze them for contamination. Each sample is very expensive to analyze (over 1000$) and in order to be able to compare samples we need to run them all at the same time, with the same metrics, at the same lab. We have been unable to do this because we have not been able to raise enough money to send all the samples to the lab. So we are waiting for our finances to pan out. In the meantime we continue to work with the data we have.
Last year we took a bit of a pause from major field work....we need to get the data in order to be able to publish our results. I think it is difficult to convery how long and laborious the process of analyzing each photo we took over a 12 year period is. We have over 10,000 photographic records and each photo is entered into a database, graded for quality, compared to a catalog to identify the individual and then looked at for information about that individual.
Our catalog contains about 350 dolphins. Some of these animals are over 50 years old and have been roaming the waters between San Diego and San Francisco for as long as I have been alive. We are starting to understand their group composition and their movement patterns.
Dolphins started moving north from their habitual feeding ground in San Diego and the Southern California Bight in the 1980s after a major El Nino event warmed the waters north of Point Conception and pushed the dolphins north looking for new feeding grounds. Ever since some animals have made a new life in more northerly latitudes and as a few years ago these dolphins have started entering San Francisco Bay, an historical event.
Climate change is pushing these animals farther and farther north. We are finding that the first animals to move were the same females that dared moving to Monterey Bay and Central California in the 80s....These few individuals are the "rule breakers" and the pioneers in this population.
These are some of the tidbits from the project for this reporting period. Do not forget to visit our website (address below) to look at the catalog and to read a bit more from our publications.
Thank you for continuing to support us. Being such as samll organization with only a few individuals doing all of the work, we have very limited time and resources to get to do it all. So your help and the contributions that Global Giving makes to our project are truly a gift to us.
September to November is the best time to be in the water in Monterey Bay. The climate is milder this time of year and the waters are calmer. Our staff has been travelling the world in the meantime working on dolphins in similar environments to acquirecomparative data. Daniela Maldini, the Chief Scientist is currently in Namibia working on a similar population of bottlenose dolphins to understand whether skin lesions here are similar or different in nature from the skin lesions we are seeing in our animals in California. Understanding similarities and differences is just another way of checking weather contamination or different environmental conditions contribute to the health issues seen in the dolphins.
FIeld Director Mark Cotter is in California as we speak preparing the boat for another field season. In order to be able to get back in the water we need to check the motor, the hu and the trailer for wear and tear, damage and weak spots. Our boat is old and proper maintenance is key to having an operational and safe vessel in the cold water conditions of Monterey Bay.
We will have fresh news for you as the field season progresses.
Your support has been the only way we have been able to make it so far. Please continue to help us any way you can.
We would like to once again thank all of you that have donated your support to us. I have been traveling the world talking to colleagues that study dolphins in other areas of the planet and everyone is more and more concerned about the status of our oceans and the challenges that plague dophins in all seas and oceans are many. Contaminants are one of the major issues many research teams, like ours, are dealing with at the moment.
In the last few months we have engaged many colleagues in trying to understand the best way to analyze contaminant samples. In fact, samples taken from the dolphins are very small indeed to minimize our disturbance of the animal, so a few grams of blubber and skin have many a tale to tell us.
In particular, hidden in this sample, are not only hints of the type of contaminant that the dolphins came into contact with and accumulated, but also the genetic fingerprint of each animal. We would like to use a piece of the sample to determine the genealogical tree of the dolphins we are studying to understand their family relationships and shed light on the group composition of our dolphins.
So far we have collected about $6000 in donations. Our goal is a budget of about $80,000 to be able to fulfill our goal. Your donations keep Okeanis hoping to achieve this goal and finally complete our study.
Our team is now focussing on data analysis to complete one doctoral thesis project, and to be able to send more samples to the lab for analysis.
Keep us in your thoughts and continue to support us.
While we strive to reach our funding goal to be able to complete the analysis of our contaminant dataset, we have managed to analyse a subset of the samples from our wild dolphin population for mercury. All samples confirm that the mercury load for our dolphins is high.
Methylmercury, the largest component of the mercury readings in our samples, is a worldwide contaminant of seafood and freshwater fish and it is well known for causing adverse nervous system effects, which can hit the brain during the development phase. Like humans, dolphins pass their mercury load, acquired through food, from the mother to the calf in utero.
The recommended mercury exposure, according to the National Research Council and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 0.1 parts per million, and all of our dolphins are above this value (average 1.83 parts per million for 19 dolphins tested). We are concerned with this and continue to monitor the longevity and health parameters of neonate dolphins through photographic documentation and behavioral observation.
We continue to ask for your support to be able to conduct a complete analysis of our currently in house biopsy samples to identify other chemicals that may be affecting these animals.
We are grateful to all of you for believing in us.
Dear Family and Friends,
thank you so much for your support during our first Challenge Drive. Because of your support we were able to become a part of the Global Giving family of projects and to have a chance to be viewed by other supporters. Our goal right now is to be able, first and foremost, to send dolphin kin and blubber samples to a lab for analysis of contaminants. This is a critical step and the first step necessary to be able to understand the level of contamination of our dolphins, and what type of compounda are most prevalent.
We have over forty samples already collected from dolphins we have a know history for and we are ready to spring into action and send the samples to an analytical lab. However, we need more help to be able to do this. We have raised about $5000 so far with your help. The cost of each sample is approximately $1500, and can be higher if only a single sample at a time is sent. We need to raise money for at least 10 samples for us to proceed with analysis.
We are well on our way to our first goal of at least $15,000 to be able to start the project. We are continuing to rely on your generosity to make this happen.
Project Reports on GlobalGiving are posted directly to globalgiving.org by Project Leaders as they are completed, generally every 3-4 months. To protect the integrity of these documents, GlobalGiving does not alter them; therefore you may find some language or formatting issues.
If you donate to this project or have donated to this project, you will get an e-mail when this project posts a report. You can also subscribe for reports via e-mail without donating or by subscribing to this project's RSS feed.