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Sarasota Dolphin Research Program Celebrates 50 Years

Dolphin surfacing for air
Courtesy Sarasota Dolphin Research Institute
The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

What began as a side project has become one of the longest-running studies on dolphins anywhere.

A research program that tracks the behavior of dolphins in Sarasota Bay is marking its 50th anniversary.

In 1970, researchers had little idea of the complex lives that dolphins lead. But Randy Wells, who rose from an intern to become manager of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, says their findings eventually became a model for conservation of these highly intelligent creatures.

"We've been able to learn about them as individuals, some animals we've seen for more than 45 years out there, we've been seeing them through multiple generations, through their kids, their grandkids, great grandkids and their great, great grand calves," Wells said.

Wells said the study has gone on long enough that they can see dolphins as individuals over the course of several generations. He says researchers have learned dolphins have traits that are repeated over and over again — which can be used to help protect the species.

"They've been here longer than we have been. And (that) helps us to be able to appreciate the challenges that they face... They have to utilize the intelligence that they have to solve very different problems that we have to face from day-to-day."

Wells was a 16-year-old volunteer intern in 1970, and eventually became the program manager. He said the program started as an addition to another project, trying to determine if dolphins stayed in one area or moved throughout the Gulf.

The answer: they stayed.

"Establishing that they were residents to an area was probably the most important thing, both from the conservation perspective, being able to determine what they're exposed to, and therefore giving a path to mitigation of that, and also for being able to set up studies that can track them through their lives and be able to look at all aspects of their lives."

Wells said that lead to a lot of good work later on, but without that basic understanding, little else would have been possible in their efforts to protect the dolphins.

Four mothers and their calves in Sarasota Bay
Sarasota Dolphin Research Program
Four long-term resident Sarasota mothers and their calves. Three of these mothers, and their calves, would likely not have been available for the photo if not for interventions by the research program.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.