Report sightings in Bay with DolphinWatch app

Scientists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science are asking Marylanders to report dolphin sightings in the Chesapeake Bay.

Whether from land or sea, porpoise spotters can download the free Chesapeake DolphinWatch app for iPhone and Android and report the time and location – and even upload a photo or video. See where dolphin sightings have been spotted in the Chesapeake Bay and add your own.

By tracking the occurrence of dolphins and their movements, scientists can gain a better understanding of how bottlenose dolphins use the Bay and how to protect them in our local waters.

“We’d like to increase people’s awareness of the dolphins and collect data at the same time,” said Dr. Helen Bailey, a scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. She specializes in studying the movements of marine animals. “When you’re at home, whether you have a community pier, you live near the water or you go out on the water, we need your eyes on the sea telling us where are the dolphins.”

Bottlenose dolphins are frequently spotting in the Chesapeake Bay summer. However, very little is known about how often dolphins actually come into the Bay, how long they spend there, what areas of the Bay they are using and why.

“We launched the Chesapeake Dolphin Watch program last summer,” Dr. Bailey said, though things didn’t really take off until the app became available this year. “We’ve been amazed at how many sightings have been reported,” she said.

Boaters and observers on shore have spotted the ocean-going mammals throughout the Bay and its tributaries, especially the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, impressing scientists with the implications. “I think we hadn’t appreciated how often they visited,” Dr. Bailey said.

That makes a difference in studying the area’s ecosystem, and maybe even in common perceptions of marine life – that is, it’s not all about crabs, oysters and rockfish, though in a healthy natural environment, the creatures depend on one another.

“They are the top predators,” Dr. Bailey said about the dolphins. “They’ll follow the fish.”

There is plenty of room for new knowledge about the lives of the dolphins in and around the Chesapeake. While Dr. Bailey said their “population is increasing,” not a lot of data has been gathered on the food they eat, or their general condition.

Underwater devices have been available to scientists for tracking the dolphins, but they don’t cover the whole bay. That’s where local folks and their trusty phone cameras come in.

By downloaded the app from Google Play, observers can easily note and report sightings, as well as send photos to scientists. Spotting many in a certain area at one time of year, for instance, could help researchers to determine what attracts the dolphins, and thereby fill in some blanks in the continuing studies on the Bay’s health.

So far, so good. In fact, it’s all gotten off to a great start.

“It’s just been fantastic,” Dr. Bailey said of the public’s contributions. “It’s great to hear their excitement. We’re learning from them.”

Check out umces.edu/dolphinwatch or facebook.com/chesapeakedolphinwatch for details.

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