Bottlenose dolphin research and education in partnership with the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation

PhD bottlenose dolphin research
PhD bottlenose dolphin research

SDWF Field Season 2015

For the fieldwork component of my PhD research, I manage and run the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation’s summer season every year. The focus this summer was on the core functions of the charity to carry out research and education about the bottlenose dolphins in the Shannon Estuary, thus contributing to the conservation of this important population. This work is integral to the aims of my PhD and provides the support I need for my research into the life history, social and foraging behaviour of this bottlenose dolphin population.

We had a great season this year, with three senior researchers and five dedicated research assistants from six countries – Canada, Sweden, USA, Germany, Ireland and the UK. Following training, they conducted dolphin research and education over the course of the summer, becoming independent and confident dolphin researchers and educators. Through hard work in the field and the lab, they developed their skills in photo-identification, data collection and processing, while their provision of excellent educational tours in the centre to over 900 visitors allowed them to develop their skills in public speaking and educational outreach. They also communicated really well with each other, creating a very positive and vibrant team dynamic!

Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Centre

Researchers (L to R): Katharina Reusch, Andrew Shine, Isabel Baker, Jamie Nicol, Meadhbh Quinn, Joel Vikberg Wernström. Not shown: Stephanie Levesque, Elisa Keeling Hemphill. Photo courtesy of Arthur Ellis, http://www.arthurellisphotography.ie

Together, we completed 89 dolphin surveys, including many with multiple sightings of dolphin groups. The SDWF recorded a total of 10 newborn calves during summer 2015; an increase on last year’s eight. One of these calves was a new calf for mum Sarafina and her previous daughter, Nala. Researchers chose the name Ari for the new arrival. It’s also always a pleasure to see the previous years’ calves growing up; for example, Sandy Salmon’s calf, Muddy Mackerel, had his third birthday in August and it’s really wonderful to see this calf looking healthy and well.

Sandy Salmon and her calf Muddy Mackerel

Sandy Salmon and her calf Muddy Mackerel

The team also continued to contribute to the Natural History Museum’s Irish Cetacean Genetic Tissue Bank, attending strandings of a pilot whale and a minke whale, where they took skin samples for analysis. In addition, they attended a marine animal tagging workshop run by Wildlife Computers in GMIT where they learnt about tagging wild animals for research.

We were lucky to have some great equipment sponsored for fieldwork, including a GPS from Garmin (thanks to Peter Macmillan for installing it on the boat) and three sets of great binoculars from Minox. Thanks also to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group for use of the Research Vessel Muc mhara for behavioural research; it is so important to gain detailed behavioural data on these animals. Thanks also to Jeff Adams for his ongoing support with our relational sightings database in FinBase, which is looking great.

The educational work at the centre grew this year too, with several school tours, a refurbishment of all of the centre’s signs, painting all over the place, and notably the preparation of the centre façade for a new dolphin mural. The team spent hours scraping and power-hosing the old paint off, and then painting the base coat layer of lilac blue (thank you to Clancy’s for the paint), ready for the artist Mick O’Clery’s mural to be painted. To raise funds for the project, we ran a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign which was a huge success. Thanks so much for the support from all of the project backers! We also set up our Adopt-a-dolphin scheme with starter packs for five individual dolphins – thanks to everyone who adopted so far; stay tuned for dolphin updates.

The SDWF held a number of fundraising events throughout the summer including two pub quizzes (thanks to all the local businesses that contributed prizes), a Kids Fun Day, a Family Fun Day (huge credit to the SDWF researchers who designed terrific new games for these events), and a Cake Sale. During our Fun Days, the winners of our marine-themed Drawing Contest and Poetry Competition were chosen, and we received loads of great entries from kids all over Ireland and further afield.

SDWF researchers at Loop Head, Co. Clare for Whale Watch Ireland 2015

SDWF researchers at Loop Head, Co. Clare for Whale Watch Ireland 2015

We also took part in many public outreach events throughout the summer including giving presentations at the Ballybunnion Seaweed Festival and Vandeleur Walled Garden during Heritage Week, taking part in Whale Watch Ireland 2015 at Loop Head and Killiney Bay, having a stand at the Clare Environmental Network Fair and taking part in four Craft Fairs at the Vandeleur Walled Garden, including the day of the Entente Florale competition. We also took a team community day to help Kilrush Tidy Towns with boat painting in Kilrush Marina’s ship yard. Thanks again to Alix Levesque at OneOSix Design for her great new SDWF logo for the t-shirts we wear during these events.

We have increased our online presence so that the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Centre can now be found on the Fáilte Ireland, Clare.ie, and Wild Atlantic Way websites. We have also been active on social media, continuing to promote our work on our website and Facebook page (now over 1400 likes), and also through the set-up of a new Twitter account (@ShannonDolphins) and a TripAdvisor page, where we  have started accumulating reviews. Our website also now has a PayPal Donate button, a link to Facebook, and the logos of our sponsors.

Thanks to Peter O’Connell and Arthur Ellis, we started the summer with a page in the Living Section of the Clare Champion describing the work we do and highlighting our need for raised awareness. It was a great spread for the team. In September, we were interviewed by UTV Ireland on board Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt’s boat Draíocht for their show next year, Lesser Spotted Ireland, so keep a look out for that.

We are also very grateful to Giada Maugeri for the new posters she designed for the centre and also to Mary Meade at Bewley’s for the coffee machine – it was a great draw to the centre and also provided the researchers with some extra pep.

I’d like to extend a huge thank you to our Centre Coordinator this year, Katharina Reusch, who did a tremendous job keeping everything going, from merchandise to research to training; she did it all impeccably. Thank you so much to all the SDWF researchers – Elisa Keeling Hemphill, Jamie Nicol, Joel Vikberg Wernström, Meadhbh Quinn, Andrew Shine and Stephanie Levesque – for all your enthusiasm and hard work throughout the season. A massive thank you to the dolphin-watching operators, Geoff and Sue Magee of Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt, and Ger and Geraldine Griffin of Dolphin Discovery, Kilrush, for their ongoing support and for providing fantastic platforms for dolphin research. Thank you to everyone at Kilrush Marina for your kindness and support of our work. Thanks to our Project Officer Dr Simon Berrow for providing ongoing encouragement and advice. And to everybody else who supports our work and those who helped us throughout the season, we are so grateful, thanks so much!

Thanks again to a terrific team for such a fun and productive field season!

Isabel Baker

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