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One year with MMRP: Two interns share their experience

Written by Kyleigh Fertitta, Madi Gordanier, and Liah McPherson


In April of 2021, Kyleigh Fertitta and Madi Gordanier joined MMRP as new interns for our spinner dolphin conservation research projects. While they originally committed to a three-month internship, we are overjoyed to have them here with us a year later, contributing to multiple projects in the lab .


Kyleigh began as an undergraduate senior on a year-long exchange at UH Manoa from the California State University (CSU), Chico, and graduated last December with a degree in Biology EEO (Ecological, Environmental and Organismal Biology). Prior to beginning her exchange program on Oʻahu, her research experience at CSU Chico was focused on the analysis of blooming times for alpine flowering plants, but Kyleigh was always interested in the ocean.


“Growing up near Santa Cruz, I’ve always loved the ocean” she says. “I became interested in marine biology specifically when my dad took my brother and I on a family vacation to Hawaiʻi. My Dad had been to Hawaiʻi many times in the past but had not been for almost 20 years. When we snorkeled at Molokini Crater, he described how much the reef had changed, with more dead coral and fewer fish. This made me realize the impact climate change and humans can have on our oceans and marine species. I knew then that I wanted to work to protect the oceans and marine life.”


Kyleigh Photographs spinner dolphins off the Kona Coast.

Madi originally hails from Kansas City, MO, and attended the University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Hilo for her undergraduate degree, where she graduated with a degree in Marine Science in December of 2020. It was here where she had her first experience working in a marine mammal lab.


“My dreams came true when I was invited to be a lab assistant in Dr. Adam Pack’s Marine Mammal Lab. During my time in the lab, I was able to help process and analyze tail-fluke identification photographs of individual humpback whales to address a variety of issues related to the humpback mating system and social relationships on the breeding and feeding grounds,” explains Madi. “On top of that, I was lucky enough to help with graduate student Trisha Alverez’s boat-based Hawaiian spinner dolphin research which included taking photo ID, hydrophone recordings, and GoPro videos.”


During their first fieldwork experience with MMRP, Kyleigh and Madi assisted MSc candidate Liah McPherson with her Spring field season, participating in boat-based research surveys and processing photo-identification data. They became adept at logging data, estimating spinner dolphin group sizes, observing dolphin behavior, and grading dolphin dorsal fin images for quality and distinctiveness. They also learned seamanship skills, how to read sea and weather conditions, and how to launch and catch the DJI Inspire 2 drones that MMRP employs for photogrammetric measurements. When they came back out in the field for Liah’s July field season, they were already pros.


Madi photographs a spinner dolphin as it surfaces by the boat.

“It has truly been a gift to observe these animals in their own home. One aspect of Liah’s project that excited me was the use of drones for data collection. It’s remarkable to be able to study animals from such a unique viewpoint. From up above, we can better identify group size estimates and body length measurements. Photo identification also plays a key role in this project and is essential in estimating population abundance and distribution,” Madi says. “And with field work also comes lab work. It was exciting having the opportunity to apply photo identification skills I learned sorting through humpback whale fluke photographs to this project. I had a fun time sorting through photos and stumbling across individuals I recognized from the field!”


“Everything was all very new to me,” Kyleigh relates. “My first day of fieldwork was super fun –– the weather was great and we saw plenty of dolphins. On the way back, unfortunately, the weather shifted and it started to pour! We had on life jackets that are only supposed to activate with submersion or impact, but Liah’s went off anyways, which was super funny. This day really sums up fieldwork because even though it looks very glorious (and it can be a lot of the time!) it can also be very draining and exhausting when things don’t go according to plan. The July fieldwork was even better, because I had graded many dorsal fin images by that point, so I started to recognize some of the distinct dolphins in the population. It was rewarding to see the research coming together in person, and I felt a lot more confident.”


Madi and Kyleigh assisting on a spinner dolphin survey off Waiʻanae.

Kyleigh and Madi learned to take photos of spinner dolphin dorsal fins for photo-identification during the July field season, building on the knowledge they gained from their diligent work with image processing from April. They began helping visiting researcher Claire Lacey with her line-transect surveys over the summer, and even had the opportunity to join Fabien Vivier in Kona to help collect data for his PhD research on spinner dolphin demographics.


The team celebrating the completion of fieldwork in Kona.

“These different fieldwork opportunities provided me a broader view on spinner dolphin populations around both the island of O‘ahu and the Big Island,” says Madi. “Participating in a 2-week research trip to Kona is an experience I will always treasure. Prior to this trip, I had only participated in research on the East side of Big Island so it was a real treat to be able to experience the island from a new perspective. From zipping up the coast with Caption Zodiac, seeing marine mammal species I had never seen before, family dinner nights and a volcano erupting, it will be an experience I will never forget.”


“My absolute favorite day in the field was the second to last field day in Kona,” Kyleigh describes. “During the entire trip we had seen a ton of spinner dolphins, but not many other species. On this day, I went south on Liah’s boat and found four groups of spinners inshore, which was pretty standard. We then went further offshore and sighting conditions were beautiful. Almost immediately we spotted two Cuvier’s beaked whales, a mom and a calf. After getting some photos, we got a call about false killer whales close to the marina. We were racing up the coast to find them, when we ran into a group pilot whales! Pilot whales are my favorite. After photographing them, we kept looking for the false killer whales. When we finally caught up to them, the captain called me over and asked me to drive the boat so he could help collect imagery of the whales. As I took the wheel, a false killer jumped fifteen feet in the air, which was the coolest thing I have ever seen. I had also never driven a boat before, but the captain was right there directing me, and I was smiling so hard because I felt so important. That night we had our team dinner with the captains and all the field helpers –– it was the perfect ending to a great field season.”


Kyleigh and Madi have since helped Claire and Liah with spinner dolphin fieldwork all around Oʻahu and are continuing to develop their skills and seek out new opportunities. Check out their profiles on our new intern page.



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