Georgia Dolphin Ecology Program (GDEP) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation dedicated to common bottlenose dolphin research, conservation and education on the Georgia coast. The project was formed in 2004 by Dr. Dan Odell and Dr. John Schacke as a direct response to the sudden and unexplained die-off of hundreds of dolphins along the East Coast of the US between 1987 and 1988. Scientists and officials quickly realized they could not answer many questions about the die-off because so little was known about dolphin population dynamics and ecology in the open ocean. Research programs like GDEP sprang up to fill this knowledge gap.
GDEP conducts regular research surveys in the waterways surrounding St. Catherine’s and Sapelo Island using photo-identification (photo-ID) as a methodology to document basic population dynamics — abundance, distribution, residency, habitat utilization and social organization. Survey data and photographs are loaded into a database that we use to match dorsal fin profiles to identify individual dolphins, kinship relationships, monitor habitat use and assemble the life history of all dolphins in the catalog.
A major part of the GDEP mission is education. Since early 2017, we’ve maintained an active presence on Facebook to share information not only about our activities, but about issues in marine mammal science that we think our followers would like to know. More recently we’ve developed a website/blog to explore topics in coastal ecosystems and marine mammal conservation in more depth and bring them to our readers.
The program began with Dan and John conducting a small, self-funded photo identification study on a few tidal rivers around St. Catherine’s Island using personal gear and a borrowed boat. The project has since grown to include all tidal rivers and embayments between St. Catherine’s and Sapelo Sounds. GDEP now has a rotating staff of undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Georgia and is sustained by annual funding from the Georgia Aquarium, as well as small grants and donations from private donors. GDEP works in partnership with the Odum School of Ecology at The University of Georgia, where John holds a faculty position and teaches courses on marine mammal biology and conservation.