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Science by the Sea: Doing Dolphin Research in Hawai'i

By Eugene Reynolds

I am not a scientist. But if I were, I'd be a marine biologist. There's something about the way dolphins move through water; the way whales breach and blow: the mystery of these mammals that live in the water captures my imagination.

But, not being a marine biologist makes it difficult to discover and learn about these creatures up close. A dolphin or whale-watching trip just doesn't do justice: I wanted to really learn. So I volunteered to join a research team in Hawai'i, and play scientist for a few weeks. And I did it more than once! Read Hawaii hotel reviews

My first visit to The Dolphin Institute's Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Lab (KBMML) in Honolulu was in the early spring of 1996. I was excited at the idea of working directly with dolphins, or, perhaps I should say, with the idea of watching firsthand as research was being performed with dolphins.

After all, this was the lab featured on the recent the National Geographic "In the Wild" special about dolphins, in which Robin Williams excitedly proclaimed KBMML's findings about dolphin abilities to cross back and forth between vision and echolocation.

In other words, I was going to a world-class research facility, and I knew very little about dolphins. I thought my role as an untrained outsider would basically revolve around a lot of manual labor, with the occasional 15-minute timeslot during which I would get some kind of mild, routine interaction designed to prevent me from upsetting the cetaceans. I was wrong. I learned fast. I had to.

On the second day there, I was already being assigned roles right in the middle of the research sessions. We participants were briefed about the nature and conduct of the research, debriefed to let us know what the significance of each session was, and solicited to give our observations and comments. I was a full participant in the research and in the whole operation of the lab.

I was given the same types of assignments as any of the grad students or interns might receive, with supervision where necessary. I was given a full 4-week education in cetacean studies, both hands-on and with lectures. I updated log books and databases, ran computers and camcorders and errands, prepared buckets of fish according to strict menus, and scrubbed out, repaired, and repainted 50-foot wide dolphin tanks.

And I had a great deal of time to spend with the dolphins. There were supervised free sessions where a qualified trainer and I played with (and fed) one of the dolphins. There were unstructured periods of window play with any dolphin I could interest to come over, tankside (Velcro-strapped sandals are my secret weapon when it comes to window play).

And, there was Honolulu and Hawai'i. Work at the Lab generally runs 8:30 to 5:00, Monday to Friday, with a half-day of special maintenance on Saturdays (scrubbing off algae, mostly). The Lab also sits on the nicest beach in Honolulu, one with a breakwater reef, frequented by locals, not tourists. So, after fourth session and chores, I usually strolled to the beach and spent an hour swimming in the gentle Pacific. Most evenings, rainbows formed over the skyline, sometimes doubles, often resting one foot on Honolulu's modern glass-and-chrome buildings and the other on her timeless sentinel, Diamond Head peak.

Later, after showering and changing back at the participants' residence, I was free to get out and explore the cultural life of the city. The nearby Honolulu Academy of Arts featured film festivals, lectures, and musical performances along with its impressive collection of European and Pacific art works. Dining in town is also justly praised, with great restaurants in all price categories. My particular favorite is the People's Café, a funky '50s-style diner featuring Hawai'ian cuisine, to which I always took new participants for their introduction to the mysteries of laulau (taro-leaf dumpling) and poi.

Weekends, I island-hopped to see some of the natural wonders for which the state is famous, like the lava fields of Kilauea on the Big Island and the colorful layers of Waimea Canyon, a rainbow-in-stone on the island of Kaua'i. Even without leaving Honolulu, I could hike on undeveloped rainforest trails and bike around volcanic craters.

When I went back to The Dolphin Institute in early spring 1998, I expected things to be pretty much the same as before, if not as exciting as a first-time experience. Well, things weren't the same. The lab had continued to evolve. Some research had ended and the researchers had moved on to other areas. New research was being conducted in full swing, which I had helped with in its earliest stages of preparation two years before. Lab procedures were different enough that I always checked before I started on one, and my command of hand signals benefited from the regular lessons to review old ones and learn new ones. I was more relaxed working in-session, and I started on more formal interactions, asking the staff to grade me as a "trainer-in-training."

My latest visit in spring 2000 was a split one. I spent the first two weeks as a participant in The Dolphin Institute's pioneering research effort on the humpback whale field survey off Mau'i. There, six days a week, we shipped out of Lahaina in small (17', 19') boats, loaded with photographic gear, underwater camcorder, hydrophone recorder, GPS positioning receiver, permit pennant, and lunch to spend 8 hours studying whales.

The survey area is a fairly narrow 7-mile slice of the Pacific between Mau'i and Lana'i called the Au'au Channel. It seems pretty wide once you motor out a few miles, though, making it no mean feat to find even something as big as a 40-ton adult humpback. It helped to have a shore station with binoculars and a surveyor's telescope sitting up on a hill conducting wide-field population censuses.

Finding a pod of whales was just the beginning of the fun. Following them at speed meant holding on tight as we sliced through swells and chop, all the while continuing to record data, take tail fluke photos for later identification, and report to shore and to the other whale boats (commercial and research) on the progress of our observations. Best of all, if the pod stopped swimming, we could drop a diver off to get underwater video of the whales.

Together with obtained sonar range data, the researchers can use the video images to determine whale sizes, thanks to a technique that the Lab has recently devised. Using size, sex, and behavior data -- together with their library of 14,000 photos -- that links observations across 25 seasons, the humpback researchers have started to uncover the social patterns of humpback life, which until now have been hidden from human sight in the otherwise clear waters of Hawai'i.

Over the course of four years and three visits, a lot of changes have occurred out at the Lab. Many of the staff have moved on, graduating to work on other marine or animal behavior projects. One thing, however, that stayed constant over my three visits and will stay constant in the future is the spirit of camaraderie that I felt there. I was always aware of myself as a full-fledged member of the research team, with all the rights and obligations that it entailed. We were all contributors to the process of discovery. All of us, dolphin and human, were colleagues in the research.

That was why my expectations were being continually exceeded. I went from being a gawky outsider to valued insider just about as soon as I stepped through the door. I was so pleased and honored by that feeling, by the mutual respect that the Lab staff offers readily, that I knew I was going to go back.

So, given what I've learned about the way that truly genuine science is conducted, when will my imagination overtake reality? When will I stop being surprised and charmed and amazed by The Dolphin Institute and the dolphins? Hopefully, never. And even if I'm not a real marine biologist, I feel like one when I am at the Lab.

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