A First-timer's Account

I’m embarrassed to admit that my first reaction to hearing that a research project was being launched to study dolphins in the Potomac-Chesapeake Bay area was pure incredulity. I thought there must have been some huge mistake – the murky, polluted, traffic-logged stretch of the Potomac just outside of Washington D.C. didn’t exactly look amenable to any degree of biodiversity, aside from bloated seagulls and fish distended with contaminants. But as we headed out into Virginia and the water started to clear, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of life that began to bob up to the surface in all types and forms. Every rock or log jutting out of the Chesapeake Bay was swarming with sea birds; jellyfish happily bobbed around the marina where we first launched our boat; fish frequently leapt out of the water as we sped through the Chesapeake Bay. And, of course, the most exciting prospect of the trip was that there were also mammals below the surface of the water – after seeing the rather peaceful state of the water in the Chesapeake Bay, the presence of dolphins, even humpback whales, didn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.

The dock at Smith Point Marina.

The dock at Smith Point Marina.

Pelicans and a seagull stand on wooden poles that make-up a pound net.

Pelicans and a seagull stand on wooden poles that make-up a pound net.

Unfortunately, on the day that we began our transects, we did not sight any dolphins. As a first-timer, I found myself frequently mistaking white caps or particularly rough swells of water for dorsal fins. I would be filled with excitement one moment, ready to shout to the veterans around me that I had actually spotted something, only to immediately bite my tongue as I watched the supposed dorsal fin dissolve into foam and melt back into the water. But the frequent false alarms didn’t make scanning for dolphins any less exciting. In fact, I was thankful when I realized that the thrill of the possibility of sighting dolphins was the only thing that distracted me from what could have been a somewhat anxiety-inducing barrage of information.

Megan Wallen (PhD Candidate) searches for dolphins.

Megan Wallen (PhD Candidate) searches for dolphins.

Within the first fifteen minutes on the Ahoya, I learned a host of new protocols and key words. Protocols that, of course, I completely forgot when I believed I had actually spotted something that wasn’t just a swell. The logical and practical protocol of describing the location of a spotted dolphin using an “o-clock” description of its location plus an estimate of the dolphin’s distance from the boat was completely thrown out the window when I was overwhelmed with the shock of believing I had seen an actual dorsal fin. Instead, I gave the incredibly descriptive reaction of shaking a boatmate’s shoulder, waving my arms in the general direction of the water, and shouting something along the lines of “is that something?!” Naturally, this was not quite enough information to tip off anyone else in the boat to where I was looking or what I was seeing. And as we approached my supposed sighting, I realized that I may have just sighted a deceptively dolphin-shaped buoy. But despite my overeager and outright confused demeanor, everyone on the team was incredibly patient with my slow learning curve.

Dr. Eric Patterson (Co-Director of PCDP) and Megan Wallen teach me how to record data while on a transect.

Dr. Eric Patterson (Co-Director of PCDP) and Megan Wallen teach me how to record data while on a transect.

My policy of staying out of the way until I genuinely understand what is happening was respected; I was barraged with words of encouragement, and given whispered reminders of keywords or protocols I may have forgotten when necessary. Any anxiety I may have felt over misunderstanding protocols was eclipsed by the patience of the team and the excitement of the knowledge that there were probably dolphins just under the surface of the water. And lo and behold, the next day, dolphins were sighted.

by Ali Galezo