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Aquarium Program Observes Coastal Bottlenose Dolphins

Mar 03, 2020 08:46AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Photo via Coastal Bottlenose Dolphin Project

Does Manhattan Beach have "resident" dolphins? That's the question that the Roundhouse Aquarium Teaching Center hopes to answer with its new Coastal Bottlenose Dolphin Project.

The research effort is being spearheaded by Eric Martin, aquarist director of the Roundhouse Aquarium. Dolphins go by the Manhattan Beach Pier all the time, said Martin, but last year he decided to begin a systematic documentation of the dolphins that live in local waters. 

"We always see these animals, but we don't know anything about them," said Martin. "My whole thing is, what do we really have here? Are these the same dolphins we’re seeing? Or are they just transients going back and forth?"

An official catalog of local dolphin sightings could be extremely useful for scientific research purposes. But it could also have more significant policy implications. If researchers could prove that a family of dolphins makes its home in the South Bay, for example, it would be considered when discussing future development and uses in and near the bay.

"Our bay is super clean now," said Martin. "Having these animals able to bear young out here, having lots of food, just the fact that they’re able to sustain their lives here is a big thing. Any development that could mess that up could be problematic. That's why this information is vital to keeping them here."

Observing Dolphins

According to Martin, individual dolphins can be identified by their dorsal fins. "Dorsal fins on dolphins all are unique - they all are like a person’s thumbprint," said Martin. "Some have nicks on them, some are torn up. They like rough play."

Through Martin's research project, 90 percent of the observations are done from the Manhattan Beach Pier. The researchers usually work in teams of two. They take photos and videos and are keeping careful records about which dolphins they see and when. Importantly, they also take note of what the conditions are like when the dolphins appear - whether it's low or high tide, what the surf conditions are, what kind of cloud cover is hanging over, and so on.

[Worth noting: Marine mammal laws require humans to keep 100 yards from dolphins (although sometimes dolphins swim up to people).]

From his observations, he said, he believes there is a local group of dolphins - what he calls "resident dolphins"  - that make their home in and around Manhattan Beach. "It seems like our guys really know what they're doing here. They're playful," he said. "The other ones - which travel in smaller groups - it seems like they are just going from Point A to Point B."

Eventually, he said, all of the "local" dolphins would be catalogued and named. "Then we could have a family tree."

'Citizen Scientists' Participate

"This is one important way we can continue to educate the public - by learning more about how animals use and depend on our bay," said Grace Adams, executive director of the Roundhouse Aquarium.

"Eric has some phenomenal footage about how the dolphins are behaving out there," she added.

There are currently 16 high school students volunteering as research assistants on the project, with another 4 coming on board shortly, said Adams.

"This project is giving these young students not just an exposure to science, but also real-life experience in basic research and analyzing data," she said. "It helps them get ready for college, and it also prepares them with lifelong skills like teamwork and public speaking."

Martin noted that the team is looking for grant money that will help them continue the project, and that they will also be looking for more volunteers to help in areas such as photography and video editing.

The team's plan is to write up their research findings, get the information published, and share it with local, state, and federal agencies that monitor oceans and fisheries. 

In the meantime, Martin and his team members continue to be a familiar sight on most mornings at the Manhattan Beach Pier. 

"Every morning, people come up and ask me, 'Any dolphins today?'" he said.

To learn more about the project - and to follow along with their observations - visit them on their Facebook page at

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