Dr. John Schacke
I got into studying dolphins completely by accident. By primary training, I’m a clinical psychologist. In the late 1980’s, an acquaintance of mine who was working as a volunteer with a dolphin research group in Savannah, asked me if I would take him on a flight to see if it was possible to spot and count dolphins from a small aircraft flying at relatively low altitude. I have a commercial pilot license and thought it would be a fun way to spend an afternoon, so we flew to Hilton Head, SC and spent several hours cruising the barrier islands & nearshore areas of South Carolina and Georgia looking for dolphins. As we discovered that day, it’s very easy to count dolphins from the air, and aerial surveying is a very effective method of population abundance estimation.
I was intrigued by the research and charmed by the dolphins. Long story short, over the next few years I met, worked with and learned from some of the luminaries in marine mammal science, including Dan Odell, Randy Wells and Ben Blaylock. In 2004, Dan and I started a small, self-funded photo-identification study in the previously unstudied waterways around St. Catherine’s and Sapelo Islands on the Georgia coast using personal photo equipment and a borrowed boat. In the early days, surveys were sporadic, conducted only when Dan and/or I had money for boat fuel, with lodging in a camping trailer for visiting scientists at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge nearby. A couple of years later, we received much needed support from the St. Catherine’s Island Foundation, which allowed us to stage our surveys from the island, providing us with boats, fuel and lodging.
This support allowed us to expand our survey area, conduct surveys on a more consistent basis and begin to involve students from UGA into our program. In 2010, we were awarded a grant from the Georgia Aquarium which enabled us to buy and rig a used boat suited to our research environment and the photo gear and computer hardware/software that we needed. Since then we have conducted surveys on all major tidal waterways between St. Catherine’s and Sapelo Sounds, involving over 60 undergraduate and graduate students in the program.