Student - April 15, 2013

'The wind howled like a wild animal'

Who? Tim van der Stap
What? Population study of Risso's dolphins
Where? Pico Island, part of the Azores

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If you think of the Azores, you think of palm trees, beaches and coconuts with a straw. And it's true - it was always between 24 and 28 degrees. From the balcony of our apartment we looked out over the ocean, which was really fantastic. Only during the hurricane season, towards the end of my internship, was it different. Then hurricane Nadine came close to our island and forced us to stay indoors for a week. One morning we woke up to find the whole living room flooded. We tried to mop up the water with about 30 towels on the floor. It was total chaos. Out of curiosity I popped outside once. The wind was howling like a wild animal and the waves crashed against the rocks. Really impressive.
The supervisor of my internship works for Nova Atlantis, a Dutch organization that studies the dolphin populations with the aim of protecting them. Around the Azores, the populations are disturbed by whale watchers -companies that take tourists out in boats to see the dolphins and to swim with them. Unlike other species such as the common bottlenose dolphins, the more timid Risso's dolphins don't like it at all - they get stressed out. So Nova Atlantis wants to make sure the animals are left in peace. Of course that is not in the whale watchers' interests, and that is obvious. SomeĀ­times they cut us off with their boat. If we took photos because they got too close to the dolphins, they took photos of us because there were too many of us in one boat. And that led to all kinds of accusations. So there is a lot more to this research than collecting a bit of data.
My job was to find out which theoretical model could predict the actual dolphin population most accurately. Another student looked at social contact within groups, for example which bull made off with a female most often. It's great to see the bulls out on the chase. They shoot through the water at amazing speeds when they are after a female. The female tries to shake them off on the basis of: the last one still in the race is the fittest male. That turned out to be Chico - he scored the most females. 

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