People love dolphins, but if they truly cared about these highly intelligent and sociable seafarers, they’d admire them from a distance. Just ask Alex Prots, a biology major at Sullivan Foundation partner school Oglethorpe University.

Prots’ assistance with faculty-led research on spinner dolphins and conservation policy has taken her to the coasts of Hawaii over the past two years. There, she learned that spinner dolphins—famous for their acrobatic displays and soaring, twisting leaps above the waves—were being treated poorly by tourists.

“We noticed very low levels of enforcement of existing laws and regulations in several bays,” Prots said. “In one bay, the only indication of regulations pertaining to wildlife and dolphins in the area was a single sticker. It was placed high on a pole and covered by other stickers.”

Reading the Signs
Spinner dolphins deserve better than that. A species that can be found in warm ocean waters worldwide, the populations living around the Hawaiian Islands tend to spend more time near the shore and are more social with humans and boats. But interactions with humans can change dolphin behavior for the worse—they lose their natural wariness, which makes them easy targets for predators and prone to getting injured by swimming too close to churning boat propellers or becoming tangled up with fishing lines and hooks.

That’s what brought Prots to Hawaii. As part of the research process, she helped conduct an onsite survey of visitors to three bays in the area. The results confirmed what Prots suspected: People visit the bays specifically to see dolphins and other wildlife. But most don’t know the difference between mere suggestions and laws when they’re interacting with wildlife.

Prots believes the lack of exposure to federal and state regulations on human-wildlife interaction has contributed to the public’s confusion. But she thinks most people would read signage about the regulations if it was readily available—and that they would adjust their behavior accordingly. “The signage could be a sustainable alternative to increasing enforcement personnel,” Prots added. “It’s also an alternative to stricter policy that could potentially close the bays completely to visitors.”

photo of alex prots, a dolphin researcher at Oglethorpe University

Alex Prots, a biology major at Oglethorpe University, believes tourists can be dissuaded from harassing dolphins with proper signage that explains wildlife regulations.

The long-term goal of the research project is to present findings to lawmakers, along with recommended signage format, and to effect change in policy, Prots said. One of the bays has existing signage that could be replicated elsewhere, potentially making the recommendation even more feasible for lawmakers to implement. Sponsorship of signage is also important, she believes, to help encourage change in behavior. “What organizations do people trust?” she asks. “Our hope would be that federal and state agencies, along with a nonprofit, would sponsor the signage.”

Preventing Irreversible Damage
Originally a pre-med student, Prots got into conservation quite by accident when she enrolled in the conservation biology course that first took her to Hawaii in early 2018. The biology elective takes a small group of students to Hawaii for two weeks during winter break. The course includes field work, lectures and hands-on learning opportunities focused on both terrestrial and marine species in the area. “Through this class, I learned how wildlife was being treated, and it sparked my interest,” said Prots, who returned to Hawaii just months later to conduct the focused research.

“The love for the environment, love for the outdoors, love for nature—those things have always been in me, but the class really brought those interests out,” she added. “The tourists and mainland visitors unintentionally destroying some of this habitat—it was always something I expected people to have more respect for. A lot of what I saw pushed me to want to help out. I knew if this was happening in Hawaii, it was happening in a lot of other places too.”

Prots had been scheduled to present her research findings to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Bozeman, Montana, in March, but the event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. In her application, she summarized her research and its aims: “Our overall goal … is to encourage, if not pressure, stronger conservation policy and increase funding for educational signs that inform people on appropriate behavior before the damage done to these dolphins is irreversible and we see yet another species go extinct due to human negligence.”

Meanwhile, the former pre-med student has a new career track. “After graduation, I would like to stay in the Atlanta area and work. I would love to work in an urban setting after having worked in coastal environments,” she said. “Ultimately, I want to go to graduate school. Conservation has a whole umbrella of topics that would interest me, so I need to look at what specific area I’d want to study and pursue.”

This article has been adapted from two press releases appearing on the Oglethorpe University website.

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