Marine Science

Marine Science

Eckerd College Dolphin Project

The Eckerd College Dolphin Project is composed of a team of several students who conduct population surveys of the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) during the summer months. Initiated in 1993, the project has been training dozens of students on how to take and analyze scientific data on dolphin populations to better understand their population dynamics and ecology in Tampa Bay. Such information can be used to help conserve dolphin populations.

Main Objectives

  • To train students in the processes of field research, literature review, scientific writing, and analytical thinking;
  • To understand the population dynamics and ecology of the resident bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) population found in Boca Ciega Bay and surrounding waters;
  • To use the scientific method and scientific data to help conserve Tursiops truncatus.

Photos taken under the authority of NMFS LOC No. 15512.

Who We Are

The ECDP team is composed of current Eckerd College students who are employed for the summer months, and continue research throughout the school year. Because all aspects of the ECDP, from formulating research questions to designing experiments to data analyses, involve undergraduate researchers, it provides an excellent opportunity for quality student research and close interaction between undergraduates and faculty that is often not possible at other institutions. The project is overseen by Dr. Shannon Gowans (Marine Science & Biology Departments, and Dr. Peter Simard (Environmental Studies Department,

The Eckerd College study focuses on answering a variety of questions regarding the ecology of bottlenose dolphins. Data resulting from the project can provide insight into questions regarding dolphin abundance, distribution, reproduction, stock discreteness, habitat use, and behavior. It is important to investigate these basic questions in order to contribute to general knowledge regarding the biology, ecology, and behavior of dolphins, and to aid in the making of informed conservation and management decisions regarding dolphins and dolphin habitat.

What We Do

Population surveys of Boca Ciega Bay and surrounding waters are conducted on a regular basis during the summer months. The research is formally authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Typically, observations are made from a 19' boat, and digital pictures of the dorsal fin of each dolphin present in a group are taken and later used for photo-identification purposes.

Optimally 3-4 members of the ECDP are present on the boat to conduct a survey, each fulfilling a different duty, such as driver, photographer, and data collector. During ad libitum surveys only a limited amount of time is spent with each dolphin group, with the emphasis on obtaining the necessary photographs and collecting environmental and behavioral data. This type of survey provides valuable information about population size, group composition, dolphin distribution, and habitat use. In addition, focal animal follows are conducted, in which one dolphin or a group of dolphins is observed for several consecutive hours. This type of survey provides valuable information about activity budgets and habitat use.

The ECDP has logged a total of 452 survey days (as of summer 2005). A comparable amount of time has also been spent in lab processing data. There have been 1951 groups of bottlenose dolphins observed, and there are currently 673 dolphins in the Eckerd College catalog.

The Eckerd College catalog is compared with catalogs from Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and the catalog of Tampa Bay dolphins compiled for a Master's thesis at the University of South Florida. These collaborations allow for the construction of a clearer picture of dolphin home ranges and distribution in coastal waters of west-central Florida.

The ECDP also conducts acoustic research. When with groups of dolphins, a towed hydrophone is used to record the sounds produced by the group (and "ambient noise" from other noise-producing things which are important to dolphins, such as fish and powerboats). We also use stationary autonomous recorders to record sounds in specific locations around the clock for long time periods (at some locations, since 2008). These sounds are analyzed in a variety of ways, and can allow us to answer questions about dolphin behavior and the spatial and temporal aspects of habitat use.


A variety of technological advances, such as the use of GPS (Global Positioning Systems), GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and digital photography are incorporated into the dolphin project to improve the accuracy and effectiveness of data collection and analyses. The ECDP is also working with the Eckerd College computer science department on software called DARWIN (Digital Analysis to Recognize Whale Images on a Network). DARWIN facilitates the identification of individual dolphins for subsequent data analysis. It approximates an outline of the dorsal fin, and then matches these features to dolphin dorsal fin outlines from images that have been pre-loaded into the program.

ECDP students are also introduced to state-of-the-art methods in autonomous acoustic recorder technology using DSG (Digital SpectroGram) recorders. Acoustic analysis uses spectrogram viewing and analysis software (e.g., Adobe Audition), but most analysis is completed using MATLAB which introduces ECDP students to computer programming.

Student Research