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Using science as our guide to wisdom

Founder and first president of The Dolphin Project on the importance of its research

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POSTED: July 15, 2009 4:00 a.m.

Twenty years ago I spoke with a well-to-do Savannah lawyer who owned a large, impressive house in the Isle of Hope section of Chatham County. A long walk ramp went out to his private dock in the Skidaway River.

I was there trying to get him to join The Dolphin Project and use his boat to take lay researchers out on the water.

"Y'all don’t need to go out in January," he advised. "We don’t have any dolphins around here in winter."

The facts, as demonstrated in time by members of The Dolphin Project, proved the gentleman to be mistaken. There are dolphins in our coastal waters in winter, although not as many as in summer. However, the attorney’s comment did suggest how difficult discovering scientific facts can be.

If you make less effort in spring compared to autumn, you may underreport the number of dolphins. To help reduce variables, you should make equal effort -- in number of surveying teams on the water -- year around to count, then assess seasonal changes in population.

It’s likely the lawyer spent less time on his boat and on his dock in the cold months, and therefore had less opportunity to see dolphins. And if we don’t see them, it’s because they are not there, right? (He declined to participate in our program.)

Most people don’t like facts that interfere with their opinions. We resent the intrusion. We like the old, comfortable ways of thinking. That’s human nature. Fortunately, there is also a part of human nature that demands to know the truth, even truth that is at first uncomfortable.

In the long course of human society it was only a short time ago surgeons didn’t bother to wash their hands before surgery. But with the workings of science, repeated experiments showed the fact that unscrubbed hands introduce harmful bacteria inside the bodies of surgical patients. And these tiny organisms make patients sick, sicker or even kill them. We can safely bet some doctors fought hard against the newfangled idea of clean hands.

But what happens when the evidence is not so clear? Are we ever guilty of being against "clean hands" without realizing it?

Let’s say a developer comes to town and announces his plans for a new factory. He wants to make paper widgets. And while this manufacturing process consumes a tremendous amount of water, the developer emphasizes the fact his plant would create 100 new jobs in the community.

Those 100 families will need homes, the real-estate agent quickly notes.

They will need to eat, say the grocer and the restaurant owner.

What about clothes for the kids and shoes for mama and new fishing gear for dad! Merchants are smiling.

"This is the very definition of progress," declares the mayor.

Growth in population means prosperity for all!

Then a chubby kid in the 10th grade begins work on a science paper. He learns that pulling millions of gallons from the aquifer each day will mean less water for other purposes. Duh.

But the kid can’t handle the higher math to determine the outcome years and years from now. His science teacher gives him a C+ with a note: You would have made an A if you had put numbers where you just say "what about the grandchildren of my grandchildren."

Kids, science teachers, scientists -- maybe scientists in particular -- sometime want to dig out facts by the numbers so intensely that the process of science overshadows its real purpose: to help us gain wisdom, to teach us how to ask the most significant questions about a public issue and to use solid judgment in accessing answers.

There are skeptics who ask members of The Dolphin Project: When you are out there on boats, are you mainly having fun, enjoying the natural beauty of the salt marshes and the sounds? Or are you seriously working on a genuine science project?

The answer: We enjoy our serious work.

While we keep exact records on the number of dolphins we see, we also look up and smile when an eagle flies by and we look down when an otter engagingly swims by. We Georgians have a spectacular coast, varied and life-giving. About one-third of the salt marshes along the East Coast is in Georgia. It’s a good place for mama dolphins to raise their young.

When we see dolphins, we stop our boats. We watch and count, then record what we’ve seen. The behavior of dolphins includes socializing, playing, feeding and mating (often aggressively). We don’t disturb the animals, just observe. And take photos.

The photography is the most interesting and the most important scientific work we do. When dolphins rise to breathe, we take photos of their dorsal fins. Each dolphin can be identified by distinctive shapes along the back edge of its dorsal fin. We are taking fingerprints of dolphins. Thus, when a dolphin is photographed again and again over the years, we have an excellent record of where it calls home, the limits of its range and other dolphins it associates with. This process works because we keep a log of every photo: date, time, latitude and longitude.

In our dolphin photo catalog, we have about 850 dolphins identified -- as individuals (with brains about the same size and weight as ours). We share our catalog with other research groups along the East Coast. Some dolphins are photographed far from the location of their original image -- the migrants. Some dolphins are photographed only in a particular section of tidal rivers and sounds -- the residents.

We are learning aspects of dolphin lives no one has ever known before.

We hope the results of our science will empower and instruct officials in government who have the authority and duty to protect wildlife. And most of all we hope our descendants will come to know the grandchildren of the grandchildren of dolphins alive now on the Georgia coast.

Beau Cutts, founder and first president of The Dolphin Project, has sailed the Atlantic Ocean on a 106-foot schooner from Spain to the West Indies and on another voyage from Cape Cod, Mass., to Cape Horn, Chile. An award-winning journalist, Cutts worked as a reporter, Washington correspondent and editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was named best poet in the Georgia Author of the Year Awards, 2006, for independently published poetry. His book is "Night Is a Rare Place And Other Poems."

 

 

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