A marine biologist’s dream: Spotting dolphins in the wild, observing and protecting them

Written by Hannah Schartmann

When I was a young girl and was asked what I want to do after school. My answer was always “a marine biologist”. I was told to stop dreaming and to pursue a career with a safer income and with more opportunities.

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Against all warnings, I studied the Bachelor of Science course “Biology” followed by the Master of Science course “Marine Biology”. And yes, the five years of my study were a long and hard journey. Especially the first years; Math, chemistry, physics and computer science. The basics to understand marine biology, but in a very theoretical and frustrating way. However, I had the unique opportunity to write my master thesis while participating at the project “STELLA” at the Thünen-Institute of Baltic Sea Fisheries in Rostock. The aim of this project was the development of alternative fishing gears to minimize the bycatch of harbour porpoises. The topic of my master thesis was “The activity pattern of harbour porpoises in the coastal waters of Fyn (Denmark)” and hence I have observed harbour porpoises visually as well as acoustically with passive acoustic monitoring devices (C-PODs).

This work only intensified my wish to study marine mammals. So I decided to apply for internships to gain more experience in marine mammal science. I was fortunate to join the internship program at the Sea Watch Foundation in New Quay, Wales. It is a charity with the aim to conserve whales and dolphins in UK. In order to protect marine mammals effectively, knowledge gaps, like missing information about abundance, distribution and behavior concerning different species, need to be closed.

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The Sea Watch Foundation is obtaining this information through continuous monitoring by using photo-identification, land-based and boat-based surveys. As an intern, I was involved in all research projects, starting from data collection through data entry to data analysis.

Photo-identification is a non-invasive method to identify a wide range of animal species by means of their natural markings. These markings are for example nicks and scars on the dorsal fin, colour variations or pigmentation patterns on the back. Each dorsal fin is unique, which is comparable with the fingerprint of a human. It is nowadays a standard technique to gain information about abundance, habitat use and social structure of a population. The work involves taking and sorting photo-id-images, manual matching of dorsal fins and maintenance of the photo-id-catalogue.

Land-based surveys are conducted from the pier in New Quay and last for two hours. This means that the intern is scanning the area for dolphins with binoculars. If a dolphin has been spotted, is has to be recorded. Also, environmental data are recorded continuously every 15 minutes. Back in the office, the data are entered in a data sheet.

But probably best part of the internship were the boat-based surveys. Observing bottlenose dolphins and common dolphins only a few meters away from the boat was an incredible moment. It was when I realized once again that I have chosen the right profession. To me, recording the abundance, GPS position and behaviour of dolphins, feels like a contribution towards their protection.

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Beside the scientific research, I was in charge of public education and awareness. This included the creation of information flyers, writing articles for social media as well as the maintenance of the education center. Raising awareness and offering education in this field is necessary to give the public a better understanding of protecting marine mammals and the threats they face.

My advice for future marine biologists? Do not stop dreaming! If you like to study marine biology, do it! Just be aware of the arduous path and the scarcity of jobs. Especially marine mammal science is extremely competitive. I also strongly recommend to apply for scholarships. You do not need extremely good marks to receive one. It is more important to be greatly interested in your research and to explain why your work of all things should be supported.

Finally, one last comment: If you want to conserve the ocean, you do not need a degree in biology. Protection of the oceans begins in your own home through reducing your own plastic consumption or buying local food. Everyone can help and can make a difference. Let’s protect the ocean together!


Hannah Schartmann is an ocean lover and conservation enthusiast. She has a masters degree in marine biology from Rostock University in Germany. As well as experience working with several NGO’s and the Sea Watch Foundation. She also writes for the ‘Make The Ocean Great Again’ blog. She is passionate about tackling climate change, plastic pollution and overfishing and believes that every one of us can make a difference.

If you have an ocean story to tell then Marine Madness is here to help you tell it. If you would like to contribute check out the submission guidelines here.


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