Friday profile: The dolphin doctor

We all know dolphins to be smart, sexual and charismatic creatures, but it turns out their interpersonal relationships are more like gang warfare than a tender love story.

“Dolphins aren’t like black swans that mate for life and it’s romantic and beautiful,” says Kate Sprogis, a marine biologist based in Perth, Western Australia. “Males want to mate with as many females as possible; that’s just how their society is.”

The most interesting facet of their behaviour, says Sprogis, is the lifelong alliances that form between pairs and trios of males, which she says can last for decades and are akin to “bikie gangs”.

Sprogis explains this on what she calls a “boring office day”. Stormy weather in WA has her locked indoors doing admin work. Just a day earlier, she was on a research vessel off the coast of Dunsborough, 250 kilometres south of Perth, monitoring migrating humpback whales for a research project. 

“We fly drones up into the air and take photographs to get length and width measurements, and to look at the body condition and health of the whales,” she explains. 

“They’re a lot skinnier now on their southern migration, because they don’t eat at all until they head back to Antarctica.”

The researcher had her eye on a marine biology career ever since she was a teenager, floating on a surfboard off the coast of Ballina in New South Wales and watching dolphins and humpbacks pass by the headland.

“When a group of dolphins swam past, you could see how happy they made everyone,” the 31-year-old remembers.

Once these animals became a primary interest, the aspiring marine biologist refused to be discouraged. 

“My career counsellor in Year 10 suggested I choose something else, because there was no money in it,” she recalls. “Because he said that, I was like, ‘No, I’m going to do it. I’m going to show you.’”

Before she’d even graduated from high school, Sprogis had volunteered on a local dolphin project in the nearby Richmond River. This kickstarted a string of more than 20 volunteer gigs across the world, from sperm whales in New Zealand to spinner dolphins in Hawaii. 

At 23, she jumped on a ship to survey marine mammals through the Atlantic Ocean, travelling from Malta to South Africa. “One time, we didn’t see land for two weeks,” she recalls.

Her research eventually led her to Bunbury, a town around 175 kilometres from Perth, where she joined the Cetacean Research Unit at Murdoch University to complete her PhD. “I wanted to focus on coastal dolphins, it didn’t matter what species.”

Now, she knows each of Bunbury’s resident bottlenose dolphins by sight, thanks to unique markings on each dorsal fin. She has also named them: Comet, Batman and Professor are a few of the playful monikers currently in use.

“Because we’ve studied them since 2007, we know nearly every individual,” she tells me excitedly. “Sometimes you can tell who it is before they even surface just by their behaviour: some are boat-shy, while some might roll on their side and give you a smile.”

But friendliness among dolphins isn’t always a good thing: treats from tourists and fishing boats have led some to exhibit “begging behaviour”, and a boat-friendly dolphin is more likely to become caught in fishing gear, or to abandon its young for the promise of food. 

Conservation, along with the threat of human-induced climate change on dolphin and whale populations, are the main drivers behind Sprogis’s research.

That said, she is first and foremost an animal lover, and believes if tourism is conducted responsibly, there can be benefits for the species and their habitat.

“If it’s true eco-tourism,” she says, “they don’t disturb the animals; they give money back to conservation; and have sustainable food on board – then tourists can learn a lot about how to respect the environment.”

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