by SC Reporter Reanna Haase
The New Wave Marine Foundation is a newly formed organization utilizing photo identification to aid in the conservation of bottlenose dolphins in the water surrounding Sanibel and Captiva Islands. The members have successfully cataloged 106 unique bottlenose dolphins since beginning surveys in November 2021.
The bottlenose dolphin population in the surrounding water has faced many threats throughout the years, including illegal feeding, red tide, and uninformed boaters. New Wave was created to inspire protection through education.
Executive Director and President, Stefanie Plein, said the team gets out on the water two or three times a week to gather data on the species. While on the boat, they are doing what is called ad libitum research. Plein said that means they follow any given path, on any given day in order to spot the species.
“When we go out, we bring our camera. We have a 100-to-400-millimeter lens. So, it is a close-range lens,” Plein said. “We try to get usable photographs of ideally each individual in that sighting.”
When the team is photographing dolphins, they are looking for the perfect picture of the dorsal fin. Plein said the dolphin’s fin is comparable to a human fingerprint, and shows various nicks, notches, and scars. Those markings make each dolphin identifiable.
“You can determine birth rates, death rates, home ranges, how many calves a female has had throughout their life. A lot of interesting research questions (can be answered) by just literally taking pictures of their dorsal fins,” Plein said.
The Gulf of Mexico and San Carlos Bay are home to a resident population of bottlenose dolphins, which stay in the area all year. Plein said that type of behavior is quite unique considering most predatory mammals migrate to follow a food source. But water around Captiva Island has the resources to sustain the population all year. This resident population will continue to be identified through building up the photo identification database.
The need for the database was in high demand, considering the last time bottlenose dolphins were studied extensively in the area was 20 years ago by Susan H. Shane. Plein said even though they are doing a similar form of research to Shane, New Wave is focused more on the water around North Captiva Island, whereas Shane was focused on the water around Sanibel Island.
The process of building up this database will take time, but the New Wave Marine Foundation has given the community an opportunity to help through the use of citizen science research.
“We do offer an opportunity where people can pay to go out on the boat to assist us with the dolphin research,” Plein said.
The public can not only help the team build their database but see the effects of threats to dolphins firsthand. Furthering the ability of New Wave to inspire protection through education.