A Day in the Life of a Dolphin Researcher

November 6, 2017

Photo by Hussain Aga Khan.

Since she was 14 years old, Liah McPherson has studied the lives of wild dolphins. This past summer, the freediving fanatic and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill junior worked as a field assistant for The Wild Dolphin Project in the northern Bahamas — home to four generations of Atlantic spotted dolphins.

When asked where my love for dolphins originated, I never really know what to say. I spent my first decade of life in snowy, Syracuse, New York — far from any ocean. Maybe it was a documentary I saw, or a book that I read. Regardless, something clicked, and I grew up begging my parents to take me to locations where I could see these fascinating animals. Today, they still have little anatomically pathetic drawings of dolphins that I created at an age I can hardly remember.

In 2005, my family moved to the Outer Banks, a chain of barrier islands in North Carolina. I began studying wild dolphins at the age of 14 with the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, a local non-profit research organization. At 16, I read a narrative by The Wild Dolphin Project’s founder and research director, Denise Herzing, and knew that I had to get involved. After interning with the project in May 2014 and again in 2015, I was invited back as a field assistant for the 2017 season.

The Wild Dolphin Project studies the behavior and communication of wild Stenella frontalis, commonly called Atlantic spotted dolphins. Research is conducted in the waters of the northern Bahamas, during 10-day trips aboard a 62-foot power catamaran, the RV Stenella. As a field assistant, it’s my job to film and photograph the dolphins during in-water encounters, process that data, and help out around the boat.

The Wild Dolphin Project is exactly the kind of work I want to do with my life, which is why I’m double-majoring in biology and psychology at UNC. To even begin to understand what’s going on in the mind of another species a strong educational background is needed in these fields. Doing research as an undergraduate not only looks great for graduate school, but gives students like me the chance to see for themselves how a research career might suit them. It definitely suits me.

When you’re living on a boat in the Bahamas, it’s easy to wake up early. At 6:40 a.m., most of the boat still sleeps as I bring cameras out onto the deck and prepare gear for the day’s research. The cook is preparing breakfast, our first mate checking the engines, and the Wild Dolphin Project’s founder and principle investigator, Denise Herzing, is already on the RV Stenella’s bridge — “on watch” — scanning the water for dolphins. I drink my coffee and watch the sun rise before heading up to take over watch.

Read more on the Endeavors website.