• MMRP

Hello from your token overzealous new graduate student!

Written by Liah McPherson

Studying dolphins has always been my life’s goal. Truly, I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t fascinated by these animals (my parents have saved many anatomically pathetic drawings of dolphins from my early childhood). So in April, when I found out I was accepted to the Marine Biology Graduate Programat UH Manoa set to work with the Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP) –– to say I was overjoyed would be an understatement!

After months of planning and dreaming, I am finally here on Oahu, and just wrapped up my mandatory 14-day quarantine. All travelers arriving to the state of Hawaii are currently required to complete this quarantine due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It’s certainly a strange time to be moving halfway across the world and beginning graduate school, but I’m thankful every day for this privilege to pursue what I love when so many others are facing oppressive hardship.

Flying over the Waianae coast.

As my plane banked to land at the Honolulu International Airport, I was able to get a first glimpse of my field site –– the waters of Oahu’s Waianae coast, where Hawaiian spinner dolphins can be found resting in the shallows during daylight hours. As with many other populations of insular Hawaiian spinner dolphins, these dolphins rest near shore during the day, and feed in deep water at night. Because of their close proximity to land during their resting period, they are often subject to anthropogenic exposure. I’ll be assessing the abundance and demographics of this population for my Master’s thesis under the advisement of MMRP Director, Dr. Lars Bejder and in collaboration with Claire Lacey and NOAA (see below). These types of estimates are critical for informing conservation measures, understanding threats to the population and creating a baseline for future research initiatives.

My work will involve many days out on the water completing what are known as photo-identification (photo-ID) surveys. For this methodology, we photograph the dorsal fins of all animals seen on a survey and create a photo catalog of visually distinct individuals. Eventually, we can estimate many population parameters by comparing the number of sightings of dolphins in our catalog to sightings of unmarked dolphins (if you want to learn more about this method, it is called “capture-recapture analysis”). I also hope to estimate population demographics using an unoccupied aerial system (UAS), which is just a fancy term for drone. The MMRP is working on methods to measure the body length and girth of dolphins from drone imagery in what is called photogrammetry. You can read more about this here on our Projects page.

Luckily for me, I have experience with both photo-ID and drone piloting. I got involved with photo-ID research on bottlenose dolphins in my hometown ten years ago as a research volunteer for the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, which I continue to collaborate with as a research associate and board member. I’ve also conducted photo-ID, behavioral and acoustic research on Atlantic spotted dolphins for the past four years as a field assistant with Dr. Denise Herzing and the Wild Dolphin Project (WDP). During my work with WDP, I began flying a drone to assess group- and travelling behavior of the spotted dolphins. A proud FAA-licensed commercial drone pilot, I’m excited to use my skills for both my Master’s thesis and other research efforts of MMRP –– I may even do some collaborative work between MMRP and WDP in the future, so stay tuned!


I’m grateful to NOAA and the Office of Naval Research for funding my thesis work, and additionally for the support of many great mentors, colleagues, lab mates, friends and family members as I settle into my new home in Honolulu and begin the next steps towards my career as a marine mammal scientist. Hawaii is one of the best places on the planet to study cetaceans, and I plan on taking full advantage of the wealth of knowledge in these islands. The extent of my gratitude and enthusiasm could not possibly be over-exaggerated!

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