One year of a PhD: Done and dusted!


Well, I can officially say that our first field season is over! And what a season it was- 38 days out on the water and over 150 dolphin sightings!

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Nikki Zanardo a marine mammal enthusiast and conservationist and began my PhD at Flinders university August 2012, researching the southern Australian bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops australis) off Adelaide’s metropolitan beaches. My project aims to determine abundance, residency, habitat usage and social structure of these dolphins (and if you want some more information please check out my page!). Coincidently, the milestone of completing the first year of my PhD also happens to coincides with the end of our first block of boat surveys.

Boat surveys began December 2012, and the first couple of months were filled with such warm weather (I wish I could say the same about winter!). Being a newly licensed Coxswain it was good to get out on the water and be in control- no more of this being bossed around by dad or other boat owners! If you have previously read Tim Hunt’s blog (The North West Cape Dolphin Project), you will be familiar of what our boat surveys entail; we travel along pre-designated transects (tracks) and upon finding a group of dolphins we collect information regarding their behaviour, group size and group composition. After this comes the hard part- taking photo IDs of as many individual dolphins as possible! This means we need to take shots of their dorsal fins (most of which are differently marked) which can later be used to identify individuals. The first few boat surveys were a bit tough; I had no previous experience in photo identification work, so the team and I had to be trained. Once everyone knew their role and what they were doing, I must say, things became so much easier. Our tasks also became much easier when we started to visually recognise some of the individuals! Below, are images are of some individuals which we have frequently seen during our surveys.

Frequent trips to the boat ramp have also allowed us to get to know the local fishermen and inform them of the project and what they should and should not do in the presence of dolphins. I find it amazing how many strange looks we get from fishermen at the boat ramp. A bunch of young girls? What are they doing with a big boat and a 4WD? Surely they don’t know what they are doing…. Fortunately, we have been out on the water enough for them to recognise us as ‘the dolphin girls.’ Some of the fishermen even help us to spot the dolphins; informing us as to how many they saw and pointing in the direction they were sighted.

Across summer, and especially the month of March, brought so many newborns to the area- at one stage we were seeing calves in every group we came across! Fortunately, we were once lucky enough to encounter a group of very playful common dolphins and one day we even came across a group of dolphins with a seal in tow! On good weather days we have had sightings of up to 10 dolphin groups- so many photos to sort through! On one of these days we even almost ran out of petrol- my goodness that was a scare! The petrol gauge beings to flash, and that’s when the panic sets in. Luckily, when that happened we were driving past Henley Beach…only 10 more minutes’ drive until the boat ramp… (surely it will last??)

So the end of August marked the end of our first field season, no more surveys until December. That means I now have three months to update our photo ID catalogue, make sure individuals are identified correctly, and begin some analysis. From the data I have obtained so far, I should be able to obtain a preliminary abundance estimate (how many dolphins are likely to be in the population thus far) and determine any association patterns between individuals and whether they display any residency to a particular area. At the moment I am also designing a presentation to present my PhD research at some upcoming conferences in Adelaide. My abstract was accepted at the SA Coastal Conference that is to be held later this month, so I better get cracking! (For more information visit

Well that’s all from me for now! For those of you who are interested in following my blog, I intend to post something monthly, so keep your eyes peeled! Otherwise, to all you fishermen/frequent Adelaidean boaters, see you out on the water in December!