“A dolphin’s dorsal fin is like a human fingerprint,” said Melissa Laurino, a junior Marine Biology major. “Every fin is unique.”
Laurino captured thousands of photographs of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins aboard a whale-watching vessel this summer to develop a catalogue of the dolphins found along the Cape May coastline. She tackled the project through an internship with the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center.
“Notches” that occur in unique patterns along the edges of their dorsal fins help researchers distinguish individual dolphins. “In reality, none of them have that perfect fin,” she explained.
She spent “hours zooming in and cropping to examine the notches” on her laptop to identify unique individuals. It wasn’t unusual for her to find and photograph the same dolphin on different days, so she needed to rule out duplicate dolphins from her photo library.
When dolphins fight, play, mate or assert dominance over other dolphins, they rake their teeth against another dolphins’ rubbery skin. Rake marks fade over time, making them an unreliable characteristic when cataloguing dolphins over the long term, she explained.
The Linden, Union County resident sometimes took three offshore photo excursions daily to search for subjects to document. She explained her work as “opportunistic research,” which is a type of flexible and exploratory field work. An extensive catalogue could potentially help scientists identify movement patterns of New Jersey dolphins, which is a step toward gaining a better understanding of their migration patterns.
Aside from seeing pods of dolphins, she also saw her first Mola mola, which is an oceanic sunfish that weighs in at 400 pounds. “They almost look like a shark when they sit at the surface sunning themselves,” she said.
Other internship responsibilities included helping to educate young visitors at the touch tank and promoting whale watching as a responsible way to observe sea creatures “in their natural habitat, not influenced by human interaction.”
A true water woman, Laurino spent her time off of the whale watching boat in a wetsuit underwater as a member of the Berkeley Township Dive Squad where she went on seahorse surveys in the Shark River. Their small size makes them difficult to spot, she said.
Most recently, Laurino began volunteering at the Rutgers University Marine Field Station (RUMFS) where she helps with bridge netting. “We deploy a bridge net, and as the tide comes in, it catches larval fishes that we sort,” she said.
Laurino’s favorite animal is the largest member of the dolphin family—the blackfish, better known as the killer or orca whale.
“I saw “Free Willy” and loved killer whales since as long as I can remember,” she said.
The Disney classic inspired her to study marine life from an early age, but the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” encouraged her to delve deeper into the scientific research that explores the outcomes of keeping whales in captivity.
Captive whales are at a risk for hearing loss because their sonar, which is restricted to a confined area, is received almost immediately as it bounces off of tank walls, she explained. Laurino updates a Tumblr blog, www.freeorcinusorca.tumblr.com, with the latest whale research.
Her apartment complex on campus is decorated with an underwater theme, and as the residential assistant (RA), she organized a film showing of “Blackfish” and a follow-up discussion with the residential students on her floor.
The aspiring marine biologist is also a musician. Since third grade, she has played flute, so she chose to minor in Music and join Stockton’s Small Jazz Ensemble. “It makes people remember me because it’s something that stands out,” she said.
Since her freshman year, Laurino has worked with poison dart frogs, diamondback terrapins, snakes, fish, birds and dozens of other species as a student staff member for the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics’ animal care facility on campus.
Her responsibilities don’t go on hold for holidays and snow days, as there are hundreds of hungry mouths awaiting her arrival in the mornings.
Contrary to their name, the poison dart frogs on campus pose no threat to their caretakers. “They would be poisonous in the wild because of a beetle [that they feed on]. The toxins in the beetle make the frogs poisonous,” she explained.
“[Human] oils are more harmful to them than they are to us,” she added, referring to the campus poison dart frogs.
Through her campus job, she has had the opportunity to learn about animal rehabilitation. Injured turtles with cracked shells from cars or dog bites, abandoned newborn kittens, and birds that are stunned after flying into windows are just some of the animals brought to the care facility for rehabilitation.
“John Rokita [principal lab technician] teaches us everything. I have learned so much from him,” said Laurino.
On occasion, she has left work in the afternoon with a baby bird that requires special attention. In the wild, a nestling receives food until sundown, so feedings must continue after the care facility closes for the night.
In just a few months, Stockton will take in rescued diamondback terrapin eggs from The Wetlands Institute in Cape May County. “Adult female [terrapins] get hit by cars on their way to lay eggs. The Wetlands Institute saves the eggs,” she explained.
Some of the rescued eggs are incubated at Stockton, and after they hatch, they are kept warm under artificial lights and fed for the duration of the winter months. They get a head start before being released back into the wild the following year. “They have an accelerated growth rate here. In the wild, they only get eight hours of prime sunlight on a good day,” she said.
Laurino volunteers in the late spring to help elementary students release the head-started hatchlings into the saltmarsh behind The Wetlands Institute.
“I love this job and am so lucky to have it. Not everyone gets the hands-on experience,” she said.