What Dolphins Taught This Scientist About Effective Communication

Dolphin Research Boat Floats above Dolphins
A research crew from the Wild Dolphin Project floats near the dolphins they've spent years studying.

(Photo: BethanyAugliere.com)

Scientists spend years conducting careful research, but what happens when they can't effectively reach the public with what they've learned? Often, it can mean a change in roles.

More and more, scientists are making the leap from researcher to communicator. A perfect example is Bethany Augliere, who spent years on a research team studying dolphins but finally found her passion in photography and science communication.

We talked with Augliere about her years out with dolphins of the Atlantic, the things she learned about them, and how they inspire her to talk with the public — particularly children — about the natural world.

Underwater shot of dolphin
A dolphin plays with seaweed. (Photo: BethanyAugliere.com)

MNN: You’ve been swimming with dolphins for the Wild Dolphin Project since 2010. That must be an amazing experience! What made you go in this direction for your research?

Bethany Augliere: At Virginia Tech, where I earned my bachelor’s degree, I did undergraduate research on the movement patterns and habitat use of black bears in Virginia. I really fell in love with learning how animals use their space and why. I knew I wanted to continue to do this kind of research in graduate school, and I was open to working on just about any species.

As I began searching for graduate programs, I came across the work of Denise Herzing and the Wild Dolphin Project. I saw that she studied wild dolphins in the Bahamas, but hadn’t published much on their movement patterns. I emailed her that I was interested in her work and studying the home ranges of the spotted dolphins. She ended up accepting me, so I started graduate school with her in the fall of 2009 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

The project studies Atlantic spotted and Atlantic bottlenose in the Bahamas. What are some of the key aspects of these species that the project wants to learn about?

Herzing started studying these dolphins in 1985, and it’s the world’s longest running underwater study of dolphins. Denise’s original goal was to start a long-term, non-invasive project and learn about dolphin natural history, including information on social structure, behavior, feeding, communication, habitat use and the impact of environmental disturbances. She immersed herself in their world, much like Jane Goodall did with the chimpanzees. Now, Denise has tracked four generations of Atlantic spotted dolphins, and watched calves live to become grandmothers. Since she founded the project, there have been many discoveries on those different topics.

One of Denise’s primary interests is dolphin communication and discovering if they have language. In order to do that, you need to know the context of the vocalizations you’re observing and recording. Is the animal whistling male, female, young or old? Is it a mom with a calf, is it two young males, is this situation aggressive, is it play, mating, feeding, etc. That’s why she first had to figure out who the dolphins were and what their communication signals meant.

Dolphin with Nose in Sand
Dolphin feeding in sand. (Photo: BethanyAugliere.com)

You’ve witnessed quite a bit of interesting behavior in your years diving as a research associate. What’s the most amazing thing you’ve witnessed so far?

That’s a tough question; I have certainly seen some amazing things spending so much time with these dolphins. I’ve watched moms teach their calves how to hunt and catch fish, males of two different species fight each other for hours, and youngsters explore their environment, playing with things like seaweed and sea cucumbers. But, I’d say one of my favorite experiences has been freediving with the dolphins at night, just because it’s so different than anything else I’ve ever done.

Most of the time, the spotted dolphins cruise around the clear and shallow sandbank. At night, however, they move off the sandbank into water more than 1,000 feet deep. If conditions allow, we follow them out to this deep water to collect data, like who is feeding, what prey is around, and recording their echolocation. To do that, we get in the water.

It’s nighttime, the stars are overhead, you’re in the water and it’s dark all around, minus some lights from the boat, and these dolphins just come in and out of your field of view, zipping around chasing prey. They’re not interested in playing or interacting because they’re super focused on eating, targeting prey with their echolocation. Sometimes the fish or squid hide around us humans for protection. I’ve had dolphins grab squid inches from my face. If you look past the edge of light, the dolphins almost glow, as they disturb the bioluminescent plankton. It feels like another world.

Group of dolphins swimming
juvenile dolphins in a group. (Photo: BethanyAugliere.com)

Have you seen any particular conservation issues arise for these species in the years you’ve been with Wild Dolphin Project?

Yes, a couple things come to mind. The first is that, these dolphins are very habituated to humans. They’re curious of people and love to bowride on the fronts of boats, which means there’s a huge tourism industry to dive with these animals. There’s also just a lot of boats around in general for fishing and other water activities. Sadly, I’ve seen both young and old dolphins with chopped flukes or gashes in their back from boat propellers.

It’s been shown in other areas where people interact with wild marine mammals, like Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, that boat traffic and eco-tourism can disrupt natural behavior, such as resting, mating or feeding. Most of the operators in the Bahamas that I’m aware of are actually very respectful of the dolphins, but I worry about recreational boaters jumping in and not realizing how their behavior is impacting the animals, even if their intentions are good. I know most people just want to connect with nature, so that’s why I think education and outreach are so important. I give talks to dive shops, schools and nature centers for that reason.

Because of all the boat traffic, one of the questions I’m personally interested in exploring is how noisy their environment is, and if that noise disrupts their communication and behavior.

On another note, I recently co-authored a paper with Denise that described a mass exodus of 50 percent of a resident community of dolphins from one island to another island in the Bahamas, about 100 miles away and required crossing a deep water channel. This kind of kind of movement pattern had never been documented before in Denise’s 30 years, and we wanted to know why they moved. What we found was a change in oceanographic conditions at the original island, which suggested a collapse in the food web. This change didn’t happen at the island the dolphins moved to. So potentially, they left for food. It’s something to keep an eye on as ocean conditions and prey distribution change because of climate change.

Group of dolphins swimming
mother and calf dolphins in deep water. (Photo: BethanyAugliere.com)

There’s a growing movement of scientists who want to become more effective communicators, and you’re a perfect example of that, building your skills in writing and photography alongside your research. What pushed you to gain these skills instead of just focusing on science?

I had been doing research since college, while also taking nature photos personally as well as for my job as a biologist. As my interest in photography grew, I became sort of obsessed with the work of National Geographic photographers like Michael "Nick" Nichols and Paul Nicklen, among many others. I flipped through the pages of the magazine, captivated by the important stories they told with these images. At that time, I didn’t know how to become a professional photographer, so I just continued to pursue my career as a scientist.

After several years working with the Wild Dolphin Project, I had built this catalog of images — dolphins playing with seaweed, moms bonding with their calves and dolphins feeding. I knew the dolphins as individuals with distinct characteristics and I wanted to share their stories, beyond scientific literature. I wondered and hoped if I could tell the stories of these animals, it might inspire people to not only care about the dolphins, but the ocean and environment where they live. I could use photography and writing as a tool to raise awareness and, potentially, inspire an interest in science, as well as positive action toward the environment. So, I started blogging for the project and using social media to share our work and information on the dolphins.

Eventually, I wanted to tell stories of other threatened wildlife and ecosystems at risk, and the scientists working to study and protect them. That’s how I got into science writing and conservation photography.

You’ve said that you really love reaching out to young kids and getting them interested in nature and science. How do they tend to react when they hear from scientists like yourself?

Working with kids is one of the best parts of my job. They are always so enthusiastic and excited. It doesn’t take much to get kids interested in the natural world, and show them why it’s worth protecting.

One classroom of first graders that I visited in Northern Virginia has become dedicated to giving up plastic straws. Not only that, they want to write to their school board and get rid of straws in their school. I know none of them use straws for breakfast or lunch, so that’s 50 less straws a day out in the world.

Sometimes, I even introduce classrooms to scientists from photography projects that I’ve been working on. One of my favorite stories was from last year, when I Skyped in a gopher tortoise biologist in Florida, to this kindergarten classroom in Virginia. The kids got to ask her questions to learn more about tortoises for their nonfiction unit. One of the young girls was visiting Disney World in Florida with her family for spring break. The parents later told the teacher that all their daughter talked about was wanting to visit Amanda, the tortoise scientist, because she knew she was in Florida somewhere. How cool is that?!

Your photography work goes well beyond dolphin research, and has been featured in a diverse range of scientific news articles, from coyote-wolf hybrids to ocean acidification to exploring mountains. Is there any particular topic you’re most excited to pursue for publication right now?

I’ve been working on a project about manta rays in Florida for the past year that I’m really excited about, and it has a very strong conservation angle. I’ve been collaborating with scientists from the Marine Megafauna Foundation who started this new project.

It might be a bit ambitious because it’s challenging photography. The rays are hard to find, solitary, skittish, and often in murky water. But it’s worth it, because it’s a story worth telling. It’s also pushing me as a photographer to still get shots despite tough conditions, and figure out a way to still make interesting images.