Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologistby Maddalena Bearzi
Who hasn’t fantasized about the unique thrill of working among charismatic and clever dolphins in the wild? Now we no longer have to rely solely on our imaginations . With Dolphin Confidential, Maddalena Bearzi invites all of us shore-bound dreamers to join her and travel alongside the dolphins. In this fascinating account, she takes us inside the/i>
Who hasn’t fantasized about the unique thrill of working among charismatic and clever dolphins in the wild? Now we no longer have to rely solely on our imaginations . With Dolphin Confidential, Maddalena Bearzi invites all of us shore-bound dreamers to join her and travel alongside the dolphins. In this fascinating account, she takes us inside the world of a marine scientist and offers a firsthand understanding of marine mammal behavior, as well as the frustrations, delights, and creativity that make up dolphin research.
In this intimate narrative, Bearzi recounts her experiences at sea, tracing her own evolution as a woman and a scientist from her earliest travails to her transformation into an advocate for conservation and dolphin protection. These compelling, in-depth descriptions of her fieldwork also present a captivating look into dolphin social behavior and intelligence. The central part of the book is devoted to the metropolitan bottlenose dolphins of California, as Bearzi draws on her extensive experience to offer insights into the daily lives of these creaturesas well as the difficulties involved in collecting the data that transforms hunches into hypotheses and eventually scientific facts. The book closes by addressing the critical environmental and conservation problems facing these magnificent, socially complex, highly intelligent, and emotional beings.
An honest, down-to-earth analysis of what it means to be a marine biologist in the field today, Dolphin Confidential offers an entertaining, refreshingly candid, and always informative description of life among the dolphins.
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Dolphin CONFIDENTIALConfessions of a Field Biologist
By Maddalena Bearzi
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
The pickup truck turns off the paved road toward the Reserva de la Biosfera de Ría Celestún, in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. I watch out the window as the landscape becomes a warm desert of sand and spiny bushes. A couple of black vultures glide over a dead cottontail rabbit. My body has begun to lose that leftover humidity accrued over a long rainy winter spent at my home in northern Italy.
Behind me, a swirling cloud of dust slowly isolates the civilized world from my final destination, the remote research station of El Palmar. I was here one year ago: same dirt road, same truck jam-packed with ecovolunteers and provisions.
In the driver's seat, Eduardo struggles to keep the camioneta on the center of the narrow, bumpy track, trying hard to prevent the dense underbrush from scratching the paint off the side doors. Crammed in between us is a huge box of cereal, our breakfast for the next few weeks. The truck's old radio plays a tedious Yucatecan song that fades into the background as my thoughts run free. I have a couple of hours to myself before being immersed, once again, in the microcosm of lectures to organize, equipment to prepare, questions to answer, meals to arrange, volunteer problems to solve, and night surveys to complete. I am thrilled to be here. I wouldn't care to be anywhere else in the world.
El Palmar is a place where "stuff" has no reason to exist. It's where a hammock under the stars is a million times better than a bed, where turtles, birds, and iguanas are companions, where the silence is so deep it seems unreal, where all windows open every morning to the vastness of the sea. It's where living in nature assumes its true meaning. It has nothing at all to do with where I am from.
The station is nothing much. An old lighthouse, a fisherman's shack, and a couple of outbuildings, shaded by a grove of coconut trees that grow in the only space not consumed by the dense undergrowth or the impenetrable mangrove swamps. A family of seven lives here, distant from any civilization. The children—one, two, five, seven, and nine years old—have never seen a world other than this. They walk without shoes, and dress in clothes passed down from their older siblings. Maria is the oldest. Last year, she would often sit next to me on the beach or near my hammock and ask me about towns and cities, and about what people do there. Our conversations were simple, limited by my beginner's Spanish, but it didn't matter. I once asked Maria about her family. She told me how her baby sister Lupe had died. Maria was five at the time, but she still remembers where Lupe was playing after an afternoon rain when she was bitten by a coral snake. A few hours later, Lupe was gone.
I think about the coral snakes I found near El Palmar last year. They are highly neurotoxic, causing a rapid death if no antivenin is administered. The king snake, a harmless mimic of its venomous cousin, also inhabits this area. They look almost identical except for the sequence of red, black, and yellow bands on their bodies. Before my departure, I memorized, "Red on yellow kill a fellow; red and black, venom lack." A victim of a coral snake bite must be hospitalized quickly, but being far away from the closest village and with no truck on site, none of us would be likely to make it to a hospital in time. I know that, and so do my volunteers. El Palmar was home to snakes, tarantulas, and scorpions long before it became ours.
Living here has its risks, but for any peril I could ever imagine, the rewards of staying at El Palmar far outweigh them. And it isn't just the beauty of the starry nights, the turtles, the quiet, and the sea; it is the sheer simplicity of life. Being a field biologist in this corner of lost paradise was my dream.
Eduardo taps me on my arm, snapping me out of my musing. He gently stops the truck and points to a gray fox standing in the middle of the road. The fox doesn't move and stands for a moment inspecting the truck full of people and supplies; then it turns casually away from the intruders and lopes off toward a Yucatán columnar cactus, one of the few still resisting extinction.
We are less than an hour from El Palmar, and the sky is darkening, preparing to storm. I yell to my crew in the open bed of the truck to cover provisions and equipment and put on their rain jackets. They comply promptly, full of excitement for the new adventure ahead.
It's pouring. Eduardo turns down the radio and focuses on keeping the truck on the road, now transformed into a slippery stream of mud. Returning to Celestún for more provisions won't be an option for at least a few days if the rain lasts any longer. Volunteers are quiet, trying to stay dry under a large plastic sheet.
After the deluge, an opalescent sky finally begins to clear, changing into the crimson shades of a staggering sunset. The thorn forest is emerald green in stark contrast to the wet sand turned bright orange by the abating sun. To our left, the mudflat is speckled with pink flamingos milling in the shallow waters in search of snails, brine shrimp, insect larvae, and algae. It's mostly algae and shrimp in their diet, high in carotenoid pigments, that give their feathers that pale reddish hue.
It's late in the evening by the time we reach El Palmar, the mud having made the journey somewhat longer than anticipated. A full moon illuminates the coconut palms and our way to the station. My volunteers are exhausted as they carry heavy bags full of clothes and sleeping bags toward their new home. They came a long way to experience nature firsthand and, though tired, seem in good spirits.
Back in Milan, I interviewed all applicants, as I needed to eliminate those who were not fit for this kind of hard fieldwork. I selected these ten out of twenty-three, and so far, I'm pleased with my selection. Some are older than I and are likely to wonder about my young age and my qualifications for being the principal investigator in this remote site. Tonight, however, they're too tired for questions.
Our research station is two plain cement structures adjacent to the fisherman's shack. One has a kitchen with an industrial propane stove and a large veranda with mosquito screens where we gather. The other is where the volunteers sleep and where we shelter our gear from the daily tropical rainstorms. Outside, toward a wall of shrubs, there's a shower we built last year. My hammock hangs between two coconut palms near the beach.
The next morning I wake up early and rested. Miguel, our oversized cook from Mérida who arrived a couple of days ago, has begun to prepare breakfast for the crew. I plan the lecture and activities for the day and sort out field equipment for the coming night of research. This will be the first of many nights we will walk for miles along the beach, searching for nesting sea turtles.
From May to August, after venturing for years in the open ocean, hawksbill turtles come ashore at dark to lay their eggs in the white, fine sand of this yet unspoiled biosphere reserve. Their timing is faultless, as is their ability to locate the same remote beaches on which they were hatched, from hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away. They do this by using exceptional orientation and navigation skills, "learning" the magnetic topography of their natal beaches. Fighting adverse currents, with poor sight and no landmarks, these vagabonds of the sea are able to determine their latitude and longitude and plot their migratory routes with a precision that would make any mariner green with envy. The ability to detect magnetic fields is something they are born with, an extra sense that comes in handy in the vastness of the oceans.
It takes one's breath away to see this ancient-looking reptile emerging from the waves under the light of the full moon. Though adept at sea, the terrestrial movements of a female turtle are quite demanding. Her front flippers leave deep tracks in the sand as she strains to pull her almost 135-kilogram body to the nearest slope. Away from the tidal ebb and flow that can flood her nest, she stops for a moment; a tear drops slowly from one of her eyes. She isn't crying, just purging the excess salt from her body. She modifies her land route slightly in search of the perfect nesting place and, once finding it, begins to dig. It will take her over an hour to mold a nest shaped like an oversized wine decanter; at least another half an hour to lay 140-plus delicate, Ping-Pong-ball-sized eggs.
I crawl silently next to the pregnant female, along with two members of my newly trained team. The others are busy tracing and measuring the fresh turtle tracks still visible on the sand. We've walked over eight miles along the shoreline tonight to find this female. Now, in the heat of this tropical Mexican evening, sweat and fatigue blend equally with the excitement of the scene.
Equipped with headlamps, paper, pencils, and measuring tools, we wait until the female lays her first run of eggs. Intrusive as it may seem, this is the best time to collect our data. The turtle doesn't notice our presence. Like an automaton, she lays a few eggs, pauses to breathe heavily, then lays more eggs until her job is done. Finally relieved of her burden, she returns to the sea, disappearing into the darkness of the waves.
As she leaves us, I wonder if she'll ever come back, if any of these ancient turtles will ever return here again. Threatened by shell trade, loss of feeding and nesting habitats, incidental mortality in fishing gear, pollution, and coastal development, the gentle hawksbill is just a few steps away from extinction.
It's 3:00 a.m., and we pick up our tools and strewn clothing from the moist beach sand. Together and tired, we begin the long walk back to the station.
I've been asleep for about three hours when a mature coconut drops near my hammock, waking me abruptly. From where I lie, I can see that my research team is still wrapped snugly in their sleeping bags, and I hear the drone of Miguel's heavy snoring from his hammock in the kitchen. I try to fall back asleep but can't.
The first rays of the sun warm my body as I sit on the beach, and the night's humidity seems to abate as the day begins. The silence is broken only by the noise of double-crested cormorants as their wings graze the water surface. A magnificent frigate bird soars over my head, lifted by the gentle breeze.
There is a bottlenose dolphin moving in my direction; it stops, inspects the bottom, and resurfaces with a large fish held firmly in its mouth. Its dorsal fin is deeply indented with a V-shaped notch. Right away I recognize Superhero, a dolphin I encountered here last year. Most of the investigations carried out by the Tethys Research Institute, for which my older brother, Giovanni, works, is dolphin research, so it was easy for me to get pointers from him on how to study dolphins.
Busy as I am now with sea turtles and volunteers, I have little spare time to study dolphins. But their presence here is hard to ignore, so I run back to my hammock to get my notepad and pencil. Without either of us knowing it, Superhero and I have opened the first chapter of my life with dolphins.
Two weeks have passed since the volunteers and I arrived at El Palmar. Our provisions are running out. It has been raining so hard for the last several days that the road is impassable, and a trip to town is out of the question. Another day like this and there won't be food enough for regular meals. We are cut off from civilization.
Persuading the fisherman to take two of us to Celestún aboard his panga, Rosa, is not hard, especially when I offer some money and to buy goods for his family in compensation. It will be a long ride at sea ...
The rain is coming down hard as the fisherman, Miguel, and I push off the beach into the oncoming waves. After two hours at sea, the gray sky gives way to a stunning cobalt blue. The ocean is flat and clear as we pass near a school of twenty barracuda moving in a circle, feeding avidly on a shoal of mullet. Miguel ties a large bandanna over his bald, toasted head. I watch for dolphins with my binoculars and take notes on the weather and sea conditions. The fisherman doesn't say a word; he looks at the sea as if we didn't exist; then he sets a line from the boat and starts fishing. By the time we reach our destination, two groupers lie dead and bloody on the floorboards.
Celestún is alive with colors and music. We follow the warm smell of fresh tortillas and carnitas toward the main plaza, where the locals are gathering for a town fiesta. Under the cover of a royal poinciana tree, we find relief from the midday sun. There is only one market in town, and we walk there after a quick stop for tacos and Coca-Cola.
Rosa heads back out to sea; her profile is much lower now due to the combined weight of our bodies and the large boxes of food we've acquired. We made a good speed of six knots on the way here, but we are now making only three as the little boat struggles forward. We look at each other nervously as the wind picks up and the whitecaps intensify.
Twenty minutes later, waves are breaking over the bow, and the boat begins taking water in earnest. With a plastic scoop and a coffee mug, Miguel and I bail furiously to keep the ocean out while the fisherman works to maintain the boat on course. The floorboards are floating, and the dead groupers slosh back and forth around our feet. Cans, vegetables, pasta, orange juice, and bread find their way out of the soaked boxes. Two hours pass, and the water is still coming in as fast as we can deal with it. Our arms are sore from bailing, and we are awash with salt and sweat. Miguel pats me on the shoulder a couple of times in an attempt to cheer me up, but he knows I can't keep this up much longer. It is late afternoon by the time the ocean finally decides to be nice to us; the foamy waves begin to subside, and the residual water in the boat gently drains out of the stern scupper. A group—or school—of bottlenose dolphins joins us, but I am too tired to find my notebook, so I scribble some notes on the side of a wet box.
Some dolphins ride our bow wave, others glance at us occasionally while swimming near the boat. I count them, look at their behavior, and make a few notes as best I can. As I write, I notice something odd. The more I look at the dolphins and the more I write, the less exhausted I become. My energy is focused on the dolphin school, and I am completely absorbed in the moment.
After staring at me for a while as if I am some kind of freak, the fisherman finally breaks his long silence, asking me in a polite way, what the hell am I doing observing "fish" like this. I don't really know what to tell him. I explain that I have done this since childhood. First with cats, then dogs, hamsters, birds, toads, lizards, and snakes. Now it's dolphins and sea turtles. When I am fond of a creature, I tell him, I develop this need to explore its life.
I had animals around me from when I was five. It didn't matter if I lived in the city; there was always a place to find them, in the garden or the hills nearby. In the style of the early ethologists, I had my field book where I would write notes on everything I observed, including my dog's sleeping habits, a lizard feeding on a caterpillar, and the daily movements of the tortoise that lived in the yard. Reading Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen gave me early inspiration for my childhood annotations. I learned how to observe and how to be patient. By recording the number of actions and the amount of time spent by an animal performing a specific action, I learned how to create an ethogram, a detailed catalog of discrete and often stereotypic behaviors displayed by a species. The older I got, the more comprehensive my efforts became. I am trying to explain to the fisherman how I "collect data" on the dolphins around us. It probably doesn't make much sense to him in the end.
Excerpted from Dolphin CONFIDENTIAL by Maddalena Bearzi Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Maddalena Bearzi has studied the ecology and conservation of marine mammals and sea turtles for over twenty years. She is founder of the Los Angeles Dolphin Project in California, cofounder of the Ocean Conservation Society, and coauthor of Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins. She lives in Los Angeles.
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You just look at the cover and you already feel yourself completely immersed in the book, with fishes and dolphins swimming around you. This is the kind of book that you start and you do not want to stop reading it. Dolphin Confidential is an easy and passionate book, characterized by an amazing personal, neat and sincere touch. It has the great capability to take you by hand throughout all Maddalena's adventures and shows you the beauty and challenges of being out in the nature and study cetaceans. But, biologists or not, it doesn't matter; this is a book for everybody… For students who need inspiration for what they are doing, for cetacean experts who want to re-live some memories, for non-biology people who want to know better about dolphin research ‘stuff’, for travellers who want to read about remote places and breath salty waters, for dreamers who just want to take a breath from a busy day. Do not miss it!