Focus on dolphin rehabilitation and research

Student Chaise Brewer practices hand signals with Alfonz the dolphin. Photos: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

By Robert C. Jones Jr. and Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Student Chaise Brewer practices hand signals with Alfonz the dolphin. Photos: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

Focus on dolphin rehabilitation and research

By Robert C. Jones Jr. and Janette Neuwahl Tannen
A one-of-a-kind course lets Rosenstiel students spend time with bottlenose dolphins at a rescue and rehabilitation facility in Key Largo.

Waving her hands from side to side as if conducting an orchestra, Monica Galvan stood on the edge of the lagoon’s platform and looked down at Alfonz as he hoisted his 580-pound frame half way out of the water to twirl about. 

His perfect pirouette, prompted by Galvan’s hand signals, brought a smile to her face and, for a few moments, made her forget about the plight faced by other bottlenose dolphins like Alfonz. 

An uptick in strandings of the marine mammal along Florida coastlines in the past year has created a sense of urgency in the University of Miami grad student, who is concerned that growing environmental threats such as climate change and toxic algae are increasingly putting these animals at risk. And that’s one of the biggest reasons she signed up for a one-of-a-kind UM course aimed at safeguarding and ensuring that dolphins and other marine mammals survive. 

Taught during the spring semester, Marine Mammal Applied Behavior Analysis and Managed Care teaches students about the care, rescue, and rehabilitation of not only dolphins but also whales and manatees. Everything from population management and behavioral medicine to research ethics and laws and legislation affecting marine mammals is covered. 

But it is the location that sets this Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science course apart. The once-a-week class meets at Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder (DPMMR), a Key Largo-based rescue, conservation, and research facility where Alfonz and seven other “super intelligent” dolphins live in a natural ocean-water lagoon. 

Training and swim sessions with DPMMR’s star resident dolphins are a key component of the class. And during a recent Friday session, Galvan, a master of professional science student from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, and her nine classmates interacted with the 26-year-old Alfonz and some of his aquatic mates, using unique hand signals to prompt the dolphins to wave their tail flukes, bow, jump out of the water, and even whistle. 

“We have an entire catalog of hand signals, and our students have to learn them all,” said Nancy Cooper, a Rosenstiel School lecturer and DPMMR president, who teaches the course. 

Some of DPMMR’s resident dolphins, she said, know as many as 80 hand signals. 

 

For Galvan, using those signals to communicate with the mammals has helped her establish a connection with them that “only gets stronger as I learn more about their behavior,” she said. “The more I learn, the more confident I feel with them, and that is a rewarding experience.” 

Callie Cole, a marine mammal science student from Grasonville, Maryland, described a previous swim encounter with the dolphins as “super cool.” 

“I got the chance to be a member of the pod, to see how they react with each other in the natural environment. I could hear their clicks underwater and feel my skin tingle,” said Cole, referring to dolphins’ use of echolocation, or sonar, in which they send out sound waves that bounce off objects in the ocean, allowing them to navigate, hunt, and protect themselves from predators. 

“We all love these animals for so many reasons, “ Jill Richardson, a senior lecturer in the Rosenstiel School’s Department of Marine Ecosystems and Society, told the students during a recent lecture at DPMMR that preceded their dolphin demonstrations. “Physiologically, biologically, and intellectually, they’re incredible. They’re underwater athletes. They have advanced social skills, exhibit complex group hunting techniques, and devote an incredible amount of time and energy to the care of their offspring.” 

They have endured in myth and legend—Chinese and European explorers often shared tales of how dolphins rescued sailors and ships in trouble. 

“In the last 15 years, they’ve also become sentinels for ocean health—early-warning creatures that tell us when things are out of balance,” said Richardson. 

And their message is that our oceans are in peril.

As of March 28, more than 150 dolphin deaths have occurred along Florida’s southwest coast, where a severe red tide outbreak has devastated the region since November 2017. Dolphin strandings have been reported in Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, forcing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare an “unusual mortality event.”

“With the increase in storms, especially after Hurricane Irma, we’ve seen a lot of out-of-habitat animals,” said Cooper. “So we’ve responded to strandings of dolphin in shallow Everglades areas where they shouldn’t have been.” 

“The bottom line is we’re under the sixth extinction where so many species are being decimated,” said Cooper, referring to Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” in which the author argues that the Earth is in the midst of a modern, man-made, sixth extinction and compares previous mass extinction events to the accelerated, widespread extinctions of our present time. 

“We’ve got to be activists,” said Cooper. “That’s why it’s so important that our students learn the importance of zoos and aquaria and proper management facilities, and our role in the rescue and reintroduction into the wild of certain species.” 

Although some people are wary of zoos and aquaria, Cooper said their existence is critical because they provide the means to rehabilitate injured animals such as dolphins. “People don’t realize today that zoos and aquaria are responsible for the conservation efforts today,” she said. “Without them, there’s not a lot of conservation of animal species that would happen.” 

Most of the dolphins at DPMMR are born there, but sometimes the animals come to the facility because they are found at a stranding and cannot be released back into the ocean. Cooper’s husband, Art, a UM alum who is vice president and director of operations at Dolphins Plus, DPMMR’s sister facility, helped found a stranding network in the Florida Keys in the late 1980s. 

If a stranding occurs, he has a team of professionals and volunteers that he takes with him, and if the animals are in good enough health to receive medical care, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission often asks DPMMR to rehabilitate them. The commission later decides which marine facility is suitable for the animals. But in the meantime, the animals need to learn how to behave in captivity. And this is why training students in ethical behavior modification techniques as well as marine mammal care is important, Cooper said. 

During the spring semester class, students get a close-up look at caring for marine mammals, preparing fish for them to eat and even taking them to get x-rays and check-ups if they have difficulty breathing, reproducing or if they are pregnant. 

Cooper has worked for Dolphins Plus since 1998 as a marine mammal trainer. She soon became an animal care and staff supervisor, and was later promoted to director of training. In 2018, when Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder separated from Dolphins Plus to become its own nonprofit, Cooper was named president and director of training. Last spring was the first time she co-taught the course with Richardson, mostly to graduate marine science students. 

“My hope is that the class becomes popular,” said Cooper, who took the class when she was a Rosenstiel School graduate student. “I’d love to teach it in the fall, too.”