It’s surprisingly hard to stick a camera to a dolphin. Surprising, anyway, when you consider the other animals that have carried monitoring devices down into the ocean for human scientists: sharks, sea turtles, birds, manatees, even whales. When a group of researchers recently overcame the challenges and created a camera that dolphins can wear, they were inducted into a dizzying underwater world.
Scientists may attach instruments to marine animals to do environmental research, as with seals that gather climate data. Or they may be interested in the animals themselves—for example, the ideal fatness for elephant seals. The information camera-carrying animals send back can help researchers better understand how these species behave and how to protect them.
But attaching a camera to an animal is easiest when you can capture the creature and hold it still. Alternately, if you’re studying a great big animal with a flattish back, you might be able to slap on your instrument as it swims past your boat. Small, fast-swimming dolphins are tougher. Before now, no one had ever gotten a video camera onto a small cetacean, writes University of Alaska Southeast biologist Heidi Pearson in Marine Biology.
Pearson and her coauthors tackled the problem with dusky dolphins. This species grows to a little less than six feet long. A population of dusky dolphins off the coast of New Zealand made good subjects because these animals are already used to visits from scientists and tourists. They’re also abundant—they swim in groups of up to 1,000 during the day.
The researchers developed a tool they call C-VISS, for “cetacean-borne video camera and integrated sensor system.” It includes a miniature video camera, a tool to monitor the animal’s depth, four suction cups, a flotation device so it pops back up to the surface when it comes loose, and transmitters so researchers can track it down again afterward.
Then they started trying to attach it. The researchers brought their boat alongside a group of swimming dolphins and used a specially built pole to hold out the C-VISS. The device was stuck to the end of the pole with Velcro; if a person got the device successfully suctioned onto a swimming animal’s back, the Velcro would tear away.
The method wasn’t surefire. The researchers did five trials, and in their most successful trial they only stuck the camera onto a dolphin 8 percent of the time. But that was enough to generate almost 9 hours of video footage.
You can watch one brief video here. It’s a pretty exciting ride. The nauseous up-and-down movement of the camera might be annoying—until you recall that you’re riding along with an animal doing, well, a dolphin kick. You can see some of the other dolphins in the group, and if you watch closely you’ll spot a baby dolphin swimming alongside its mother.
This type of camera could give all kinds of useful insights into dolphin life, the researchers say. In their footage, they saw both friendly flipper rubbing and more-than-friendly sexual behavior. (Allegedly, that’s in panel d of the figure above.) The camera also caught some of the animals that dolphins were preying on, as well as the plants in their habitats.
Crucially, the researchers also saw that the cameras didn’t change dolphins’ behavior. The animals tended to swim away right after getting slapped with a camera, but they didn’t act panicked. Afterward, they behaved the same as the rest of their group. This is important because scientists don’t want to endanger animals with their equipment—or get results that don’t match what a dolphin does in its everyday life.
Next, the scientists hope to improve their device by shrinking it further and adding more tools. And, presumably, by making something they can attach on the first or second try.
Image: Pearson et al.