Sunday, October 17, 2021

Studying Our Area Dolphins

Stepping Stones

Naturalist Kent Morse, Michael Tateo of the Dolphin Explorer and 10.000 Island Dolphin Project

My mom used to love going to the Venice jetties in the evening searching for dolphins. She was the ultimate detective, scanning the inlet and the coastline, wondering where one of these elusive creatures would surface for a breath of air. When she did see one, it was like Christmas morning all over again. The joy of sharing time and space with them could not be measured. At least twice a week, every week of the year, she would be in search of her marine friends.

So too is the case with many visitors to the South Florida coastline. There seems to be a universal feeling of euphoria when a dolphin comes to the surface. And then the questions begin to arise: why are they here at this time of day, where were they earlier and how far do they travel? The answers to these and many similar questions can be provided by a dedicated team of specialists working from the Rose Marina.

Onboard the vessel Dolphin Explorer, four guys who have a passion for studying the Marco Island bottlenose dolphin population are on the water 500 to 600 times a year to identify these cetaceans and study the abundance, distribution, movement, association patterns and behavior of these highly intelligent mammals. Known as the 10,000 Island Dolphin Survey Study, the program has received national accolades for its work.

Dr. Keith Bellows wrote a book for National Geographic titled “100 Places That Could Change Your Child’s Life.“ Listing specific locations around the world, the only Florida destination mentioned was the 10,000 Island Dolphin Study here on Marco. ABC TV has a program called “Sea Rescue” and they came to the area to create a story regarding a dolphin rescue originating from the work of your local study team. Most recently Samantha Brown of the PBS show “Places To Love” aired a segment about the team’s work. CNN and USA Today have also praised the program, as well as others.

The mission of the program is to provide a detailed record regarding the dolphin population and how it thrives or doesn’t thrive. For example, the outbreak of Red Tide in recent years affected the dolphin population from north Naples to Tampa Bay, with more than 200 dolphin deaths noted.

Unfortunately, it is not known if this is ten percent or 90 percent of area dolphins, since very few records are kept. By tracking the population in our waters, it would be apparent that an event would affect a specific percent of the dolphins, or affect males, females, juveniles or the entire sector. Information such as this could help understand the goings-on in other regions. A better example would be the recent devastation by Hurricane Irma’s hit on Marco’s waters.

Almost immediately after the storm passed, a list of our dolphins was compiled and as individuals were sighted over the next few months, they were checked-off as survivors. Only two dolphins, an adult female and a two-year-old calf, have not been seen since the storm.

While many other survey teams around the country depend on government funds or grants, the 10,000 Island Dolphin Study program relies on the public to support its research. People are invited to become “citizen scientists” during a three-hour trip, helping to identify the area dolphins and learning about their behavior and genealogy. The team has also created a well-respected eco-tour that educates guests about other marine life, bird species and plant life in the area.

It takes a unique and dedicated team to provide such important information for other scientists and the public to view. Let’s meet the individuals that make this happen.

Capt. Ed Farr

Kent Morse: A graduate of Ohio State University and a Naturalist certified through the University of Florida, Kent is a founder of the program, which began in 2006. His thirteen years of photographing, studying and logging important data has laid the groundwork for the continuation of the study. The historical data he has compiled about the dolphin population is invaluable.

Capt. Michael Tateo: A graduate of Florida Gulf Coast University in Environmental Science, Michael came to the team as an intern to complete his college program. His passion and personality earned him an immediate spot with Dolphin Explorer, as well as his well-rounded knowledge of both flora and fauna. He has been with the team for more than seven years.

Bob McConville: A graduate of the University of Florida program, Bob is a certified Master Naturalist. His passion to provide a unique and educational experience, both on and off the water, motivates him to expand the informational side of the program. A published author and columnist, he has been with the team for nearly eight years.

Capt. Ed Farr:  A former Science teacher for 15 years, Ed is the newest member of the team, joining last fall. He has worked with the Human-Dolphin Institute as an instructor in dolphin physiology and evolution, and provided the same instruction at Water Planet in Panama City Beach. He has authored a 42-page paper about dolphins and is a welcome addition to the team.

While 13 years seems to be an extensive study time, the program feels that it is still in its infancy. Collaboration with institutes such as Rookery Bay, Mote Marina laboratory, NOAA and other agencies, are opening doors to share our area information with other scientists and programs around the world. Lines of communications like these can only enhance the understanding and behavior of these very special creatures, our bottlenose dolphins.

The public is invited to view the Dolphin Explorer/10,000 Island Dolphin Study Team website,, to learn more about the program. Feel free to sign up for our online newsletter for updates on the area population and scientific updates.

Bob is a Naturalist onboard the dolphin study vessel, Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books available locally and an award winning columnist for this newspaper. Bob loves his wife very much!

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