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Save Bottlenose Dolphins

by Deborah Mitchell
The Challenge

Bottlenose dolphins and 37 other species of these highly intelligent mammals face potential extinction. Many dolphins — including pink dolphins, black dolphins, Amazon River dolphins, and Yangtze River dolphins — are critically or seriously endangered, or possibly already extinct. For instance, after an intensive search in 2006 for the Yangtze River dolphin, experts announced that the species was likely extinct.

Every year, humans kill tens of thousands of bottlenose dolphins or damage their habitats. Any detrimental impact to their environment can greatly jeopardize their survival.

Perhaps the greatest threat to bottlenose dolphins is contamination of their habitat: oceans, seas, and rivers. Pesticides, heavy metals, plastics, and other industrial and agricultural pollutants that do not break down in the environment or that remain in the waterways for decades are dramatically reducing dolphin populations, as all dolphins build up unusually high levels of contaminants. In addition,  river and marine dolphins frequently die when they collide with boats, while many dolphins also succumb after swallowing debris, including nets, balls, and plastics.

A fishing technique called purse-seining, in which huge nylon nets up to one mile long are used to catch yellowfin tuna, causes the death of about 20,000 dolphins per year, as the dolphins and tuna often swim together and the dolphins are crushed or drown when the nets are brought in.

The use of driftnets (banned in 1993 but still used illegally) and gill nets (still legal) kills more bottlenose dolphins each year than any other fishing method.  Dolphins are also hunted for food, oil, and other uses. In Chile, for example, the endangered black dolphin is hunted to provide bait for king crab, and Turkish fishermen kill dolphins for oil and chicken feed. Japan is believed to be the largest consumer of dolphin meat and also engages in dolphin drive hunts during which bottlenose and other types of dolphins are captured and killed.

The gentle nature of bottlenose dolphins and other species makes working with them and preserving their habitats an especially rewarding experience. Several conservation groups are ready to help you share that experience.

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The widespread distribution of bottlenose and other dolphin species, combined with the energy of dedicated researchers and volunteers around the world who are concerned about their survival, means there are many opportunities to make a difference for dolphins and their ecosystems. Here are some of them:

  • Study bottlenose and spotted dolphins in the Bahamas with this Oceanic Society project. You will work on a research boat alongside biologists and study the behavior and ecology of the dolphins. Research is done by snorkeling and watching the dolphins in the water. Accommodations are aboard an 86-foot yacht.
  • Travel to the Fiji islands where you can help do research and conserve Spinner dolphins. For a minimum of two weeks, you can work alongside experts from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society to make a difference in the lives of these beautiful creatures and also help create and deliver educational workshops. 
  • Join a dolphin research project in Kenya, where you can conduct research from a surface vessel and snorkel to observe turtles. Volunteers are trained by research staff and have an opportunity to work in the Shimoni Archipelago, off the coast of the Indian Ocean on the border with Tanzania, an ideal location for dolphins.
  • Go to Hawaii and spend at least two weeks with the dolphins and whales near O'ahu. Volunteers spend most of their time on a boat gathering information about dolphins and whales that is critical for conservation and management. You must provide your own accommodations, transportation, and meals. 
  • Head for the Amazon River and spend time with Peruvian biologists in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, located on a major Amazon tributary. Duties include conducting surveys of dolphins, fish, and turtles as well as other wildlife. Accommodations are on a three-decker boat and meals are included during your 8- to 16-day stay.
  • The Oceanic Society operates a dolphin volunteer opportunity in Belize. Spend 8 days on boats and in the water documenting dolphin behavior and researching their habitat. Accommodations include cabanas with private baths and meals.
Experts say dolphins have a level of intelligence comparable with humans, and all species appear to be especially skillful at cooperating with each other when looking for food or caring for their young. You can be part of a human team that cooperates to ensure the future of these remarkable creatures.

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