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Protect Our Dolphins Making Waves on Animals’ Behalf

Nonprofit research group hopes to get boat in the water to assess health, sustainability, needs of local bottlenose population

The Santa Barbara Channel and coastline have long been known for an abundance of dolphins. Excited tourists — and locals, too — are often seen, mouths agape, staring and pointing at the impromptu aerial displays put on by these beloved creatures.

Toni Frohoff says there's a research gap and a public conservation gap when it comes to coastal bottlenose dolphins along the Central Coast.
Toni Frohoff says there’s a research gap and a public conservation gap when it comes to coastal bottlenose dolphins along the Central Coast. (Lindsey Eltinge photo / www.lindseyeltinge.com)

The dolphin is even a symbol of Santa Barbara itself; who hasn’t seen Bud Bottoms’ dolphin sculpture, the Friendship Fountain, at the base of Stearns Wharf at State Street and Cabrillo Boulevard?

Perhaps because of the ubiquitous nature of local dolphin sightings, however, many Santa Barbarans may not know that more steps can and should be taken to ensure these plentiful, playful mammals will continue to flourish.

Behavioral and wildlife biologist Toni Frohoff, research director at TerraMar Research, believes it’s dangerous to assume the dolphins will always be here. In fact, they face a number of environmental challenges.

Enter POD (Protect Our Dolphins), an all-volunteer nonprofit organization Frohoff founded to ... well, the name pretty much says it all. Frohoff says she started POD last year because of the conspicuous need in this area.

“There is a need for both research and education regarding the dolphins in the Santa Barbara and surrounding areas,” Frohoff told Noozhawk. “There is a research gap and a public conservation gap with respect to dolphins specifically in this region.

“There is research up in Monterey, and down in L.A., so a lot of my colleagues are looking forward to seeing the results of the data we get here, specifically on the coastal bottlenose dolphin, because there aren’t nearly as many as people think.”

Frohoff says people often confuse the coastal bottlenose dolphin with the common dolphin. Common dolphins are frequently seen traveling in groups of hundreds, if not thousands, while the average group size of the coastal bottlenose dolphin is only between about five and 20 animals. The entire coastal bottlenose dolphin population — ranging from Ensenada in Baja to Monterey Bay — is estimated to be just 300 to 600 total.

According to Frohoff, the average group size of this species has been on the decline over the past several years. She says there are a few different possible causes for the trend.

“There are several theories, the most prominent being that there is a scarcity of food resources, and this would be consistent with what we’re seeing in other marine animals who we fish,” she said.

Frohoff blames much of this scarcity on “human-caused habitat degradation,” and says one aspect of that is the mismanagement of fisheries. Because there has yet to be enough data collected about the possible causes, however, no one can really say for sure at this point. That’s why POD plans to conduct research and collect data, which Frohoff hopes will not only stand on its own, but also be used by neighboring dolphin researchers to create a more complete picture of what is happening to the dolphin population, and why.

One thing Frohoff has seen with increasing regularity is the presence of unusual lesions or scarring on the dolphins, which she attributes to environmental contaminants. She says some of the images are both gruesome and heartbreaking.

“We’re seeing these lesions in larger numbers in various areas around the world, and they look like extremely painful and serious wounds,” she said. “It almost looks as if something has burned the skin and the flesh off the dolphins. This is of great concern, because it’s not only an issue of the well-being of the dolphins, but it is very likely an indication of potential immunosuppression.”

To effectively conduct the necessary research, Frohoff and her team of volunteers are obviously going to need the proper equipment, and she says there is one crucial piece that they have yet to acquire: a boat.

“We have had several promising offers of boats — but the rubber has yet to meet the road, so to speak,” Frohoff said. “We have already started our research from land, but there is only so much data that can be obtained from that vantage point.”

But research is only one of the goals that Frohoff has in mind for the use of the boat. The other, she says, is gaining the critical ability to allow students to go out to sea and get hands-on experience. Since Frohoff moved to Santa Barbara less than a year ago, she has worked with a number of UCSB students, and says she has met several students who are interested in pursuing education in marine mammal behavior, but who don’t have the opportunity to take a local course in the field.

One such student is UCSB senior Lindsay Griffin, who is currently working to complete a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. Griffin is one of the many UCSB students who has contacted Frohoff over the past several months, expressing a desire to volunteer on the water to contribute to the dolphin research, and gain a deeper understanding of the interspecies link.

“I think it has become increasingly obvious that the relationship between humans and creatures has become strained,” Griffin said. “It is vital for our own existence as humans on this planet to maintain and strengthen our relationship with other species. There is a lot that we can learn from them.”

Toni Frohoff coaxes a free-ranging dolphin in Ireland into a research experiment she conducted with fellow dolphin expert Ute Margreff.
Toni Frohoff coaxes a free-ranging dolphin in Ireland into a research experiment she conducted with fellow dolphin expert Ute Margreff. (Protect Our Dolphins photo)

Frohoff hopes to begin her research this summer, and continue it indefinitely, but that is contingent on the acquisition of a vessel. A big part of the research will include the individual identification of the area’s dolphins, which is done by taking photos of the dolphins’ dorsal fins. In this way, Frohoff hopes to learn more about the dolphins as individuals, thereby learning more about their conservation.

Frohoff holds a master’s degree from Texas A&M, as well as a doctorate in behavioral biology from Union Institute. She has more than 25 years of experience in researching different species of dolphins around the world, and has authored several books on the subject, including her latest, Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication.

Frohoff lectures internationally and her research is frequently featured in popular and scientific books and journals and in the media (including being featured in a recent New York Times Magazine cover story, NPR, Smithsonian Magazine, Discovery Channel, Time magazine, Animal Planet and National Geographic television). In July, she has been invited to speak at the extremely prestigious TED Global Conference in Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Because POD is all-volunteer (including Frohoff herself), there is an obvious need for supplies and equipment for the students involved. On Aug. 18, Pierre LaFond Wine Bistro, 516 State St., will be hosting a POD “Dolphins for Students” fundraiser, which Frohoff hopes will have a great turnout.

In the meantime, Frohoff will continue to work hard to ensure that our dolphins remain safe and protected. Educating the public, she says, will be the key to her success, and to that of POD.

“The public is very passionate about dolphins and the marine environment,” she said. “It’s just a matter of providing them with a positive and meaningful way of channeling that passion. That’s what our research will help us do.”

Click here for more information on POD (Protect Our Dolphins). Click here to make a donation or to volunteer.

— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.

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