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Chesapeake Biological Laboratory

Tracking dolphins in Chesapeake Bay

Researchers seek public's support for DolphinWatch project

Watch as UMCES research assistant Jessica Wingfield deploys a dolphin click detector device, which is known as a C-POD.

Dolphins are more frequently spending their summers in Chesapeake Bay. At least that’s the story Dr. Helen Bailey kept hearing, but the ecologist with a long history in studying these aquatic animals wanted more than anecdotal evidence.

“We really don’t have much information at all about where they are going and when,” said Bailey, an associate research professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.

Photo by Cheryl Nemazie

She set out to change that, with the public’s help.

With funding support from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Bailey created Chesapeake DolphinWatch, a research project aimed at answering some of her lingering questions about dolphins in the Bay. At the heart of the project is a web-based application that allows members of the public to report dolphin sightings in the Bay with the touch of a finger.

“The more eyes we have on the water the better to report dolphin sightings. We think that citizens can make very good citizen scientists,” she said.

The app launched in late June. Within the first month of the launch, more than 1,300 users registered to use the Chesapeake DolphinWatch app and had reported roughly 700 sightings.

“People have been really excited to tell us about their sightings, but there was no easy way to report them before,” Bailey said. “Dolphins are very iconic, and they are in our backyard.”

It’s been really interesting to learn more about this and we certainly hope that now that we’re starting to collect this data, we can then also look how that not varies just over one season, but also year to year as well.

Helen Bailey
Founder, Chesapeake DolphinWatch
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Jessica Wingfield and Leila Fouda surveyed the Chesapeake Bay for bottlenose dolphins from the air on April 27 with help from SouthWings pilot Ron Baker.

“We are excited to be using new technology that will enable everyone to help us understand more about dolphins,” said Tom Miller, director of UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. “Citizen science, such as the DolphinWatch tracker, is becoming more and more important and helps connect everyone to our work to protect, restore, and sustain the Bay.”

Bailey and her team have been working to individually verify each sighting by contacting the people behind the reports.

“Once we receive a sighting, that sighting is immediately shown on the app, so anyone on the app can see that person’s sighting,” Bailey said. “We have a database that we can view with all of the sightings and we will contact the person who reported each sighting asking them if they can provide a bit more information. Particularly if that person has a photo or video, that allows us to very quickly verify that there were dolphins, but any additional information that helps convince us that yes, it was definitely a dolphin, it wasn’t just a wave or something else splashing in the water.”

The team is also working with SouthWings, a non-profit conservation organization that provides a network of volunteer pilots to advocate for the restoration and protection of the ecosystems and biodiversity of the Southeast through flight. Members of the team are making occasional flyovers on the lookout for dolphins.

The team is building a spreadsheet of sightings by location, date and time, and number of dolphins spotted. Already she’s finding some interesting results.

“What we’ve been finding is that actually dolphins go in many places around the Bay. We haven’t found just one hot spot. They actually go as far north as the Bay Bridge and beyond. They go on the east and west sides of the Bay. They will go right up the rivers. We had a sighting one 30 miles up the York River,” she said. “So they’re quite widely distributed, and it’s been really interesting to learn more about this and we certainly hope that now that we’re starting to collect this data, we can then also look how that not varies just over one season, but also year to year as well.”

Bailey already has a few underwater microphones in the Patuxent and Potomac Rivers where they meet the Chesapeake Bay listening for the echolocation click sounds dolphins make.

The data collected through Chesapeake DolphinWatch will help inform where to put more devices to help understand where the dolphins are going and where are feeding.  She is trying to raise money to purchase more of the devices.

Bailey hopes to make the DolphinWatch experiment an annual affair. Over time, she believes she can collect more data that answers some bigger questions, such as whether the dolphins’ frequent visits reflect a healthier Chesapeake Bay.

“Is it that the Bay is healthier or is it that along the coast there is not as much food? That’s a potential risk. Our hope is that it is because the Bay is healthier, but what we’re also going to look at is dolphin movements along the coast, too, off Maryland and hopefully Virginia, so we can see how much occurrence is there relative to in the Bay, so if there is a shift are the animals just moving in because it’s just not good anymore out there versus are there just generally more dolphins around,” Bailey said.