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  • Jan Östman-Lind

I remember when I first learned to read, in first grade in Sweden in the 1960’s. We had a thick book, several hundred pages long, that started with the following text on the first page: “Far ror, Mor är rar” (Father is rowing, Mother is sweet). This is the kind of nonsense that could make you wonder why you should bother learning to read. It seems obvious that books for early readers should contain information that is useful and interesting. One might puzzle over why so few book publishers seem to have figured that out.

Any caretaker of young children knows that children are interested in the world around them, especially when it comes to animals. I was reminded of this when I watched my youngest child's first soccer game when he was 4 years old. There were 5 boys on each team, all trying to get to the ball, until suddenly one of them spotted a bumble bee on a dandelion. Suddenly all thoughts about the ball were forgotten and everyone wanted to see what the bumble bee looked like and what it was doing. Needless to say, the game came to a halt.

So, why not take advantage of that curiosity when writing books for children of the age when they are learning to read. Then the whole act of trying to figure out what the scribbles on the page are saying makes sense, since it will provide you with fun information that you want to know.

This is why at the Kula Naiʻa Foundation, we are trying to write books for early readers about the natural world. The first book we created is called The Seabird Egg Book, which is a part of a series of Ocean books for children and is designed to be a shared read. This book features five different seabirds and gives a glimpse into the challenges they face and the solutions they have for laying their eggs.

We have reached a critical juncture and we need your help. We will be creating eight new books in the Ocean Book Series that will include exciting information for young children about five species of seabird chicks and about the prey species (fish and squid), the seabirds’ role in the natural world and how humans can help seabirds. Each will be written to a slightly different reading level to help support early reading skills. It is important to us that these books will be useful to classroom teachers and parents of children just learning to read.

All the work and resources for this project have been donated by the people involved. This funding is needed to cover expenses such as travel for collaboration with wildlife photographers, illustrators, school administrators and teachers, as well as funding to cover printing and shipping costs to provide classroom sets of books and materials to teachers for piloting in Grade 1 and Grade 2 classrooms. This book series is a model for an integrated science and literacy curriculum for elementary students that also links students to vital conservation work by organizations such as the Hawaii Wildlife Center and the Kula Nai’a Foundation.

If you can make a contribution to this worthy cause, click on this link to support us.


Most studies of wild dolphin behavior study the animals at the surface from regular vessels. This is how we started as well. From this vantage point, you mostly get to see their backs and dorsal fins, which fortunately offers a great opportunity to identify individuals, since they often have nicks in the trailing edge of the fin. Sometimes, there are also marks in the leading edge. There can also be variations in the shape of the fin, which also provide opportunities for individual identification.

By identifying individuals, you can estimate the size of the population and put together a picture of who spends time with whom and how stable the social groups are, in other words the social organization of the animals you are studying. However, the dorsal fin generally does not allow you to determine whether the individual is male or female - a very basic piece of information for any behavioral study. For some dolphin species adult males tend to have larger, more prominent dorsal fins than adult females, but this is not always the case. Subadult (sexually but not socially mature - think human teenagers) and juvenile (not sexually mature) males generally do not have dorsal fins that stand out.

The only way to definitively determine the gender of a dolphin is a close look at its genital area: males have two openings, or slits in their ventral (belly) area, the anus closer to the tail region, and a slit further up on the belly where the penis has been folded in for the animal to be more streamlined. Females, on the other hand, have one central genital slit, containing both the anus and the vagina, with 2 small mammary slits on either side, where the nipples are folded in. Females of some cetacean whale species have 4 mammary slits, one pair on each side of the genital slit.

This is all well and good, if you find a dead dolphin stranded on a beach, but how do you get a look at the genital area of dolphins in the wild? Sometimes, you are lucky and have a dolphin roll over near your boat, or you get a photo of a leaping dolphin showing the ventral area, but these are rare occasions. For this reason, it is not uncommon for researchers to make assumptions about their subjects based on what they can see. For example, an adult animal associated with a calf is often assumed to be a female.

Our research on Hawaiian spinner dolphins was carried out under the auspices of our advisor, Dr. Ken Norris. He had developed a series of underwater viewing vessels (see this link) to overcome this challenge and we were lucky enough to help develop, build and use the last version in that series of vessels. The underwater viewing boat we used, the “Smyg”, had a viewing chamber that could be lowered through the hull so that the windows ended up just below the hull, putting the observer below dolphins swimming near the surface around the boat. This allowed us to determine the gender of dolphins by eye, or during frame-by-frame analysis of videos taken from the chamber.

We were also able to do focal animal follows, video-taping a specific dolphin, or group of dolphins for an extended period of time from the chamber, while other people on the team photographed them at the surface for individual identification purposes. Back on land, a frame-by-frame analysis of the interactions between all individuals on camera while a transcription of the narration done during filming provided additional information about animals and events off camera, providing the information needed to interpret actions and reactions by the dolphins.


Updated: Oct 5

To complete my doctoral research, I had to overcome a fundamental challenge to any scientist wanting to study marine mammal social behavior. Any study of social behavior involves many hours of observations of interactions between the animals you are studying. That is very difficult to do with dolphins, since they spend their lives underwater out of our view. The one person I knew that had tackled this problem was Dr. Ken Norris. He had built two crazy-looking vessels that allowed him to study dolphins underwater, the Semi-submersible Seasick Machine and the Makaʻala (see previous blog).

By the time I started as one of Ken’s doctoral students at UC Santa Cruz, in 1984, the main part of his soon to be latest installment in the line of underwater viewing vessels had already been procured - a retired 19 foot Coast Guard Crash boat, with a fiberglass, cathedral hull adapted for an in-board-out-drive engine and a rectangular aluminum wheel house, sitting on a rusting trailer at the Long Marine Lab, with a lot of weeds growing inside.

It became my job to turn this vessel into a state of the art research tool, under the guidance of Dr. Randy Wells, one of Ken’s former graduate students that had used the Makaʻala.

From the experience with those previous vessels came the idea to incorporate a retractable viewing chamber in the new vessel, since this would accomplish two goals at once. First, pulling the viewing windows out of the water when the chamber was not in use meant that there would not be a lot of algae growth over the windows to clean up before starting observations. Second, it would also mean that the chamber would not provide resistance when moving through the water, looking for dolphins or heading back home at the end of the day, saving both time and fuel.

After removing the wheel house and all the rusting metal-parts from the fiberglass hull, it was taken to a shop where a 3-foot diameter hole was cut out in the center of the hull. A well was built up around the hole, higher than the boat railing (and later topped by a red-and-white rim). The viewing chamber was then constructed out of aluminum and hung in weirs from an A-frame centered over the well.

The next priority was to make the hull larger, to be able to handle the additional weight of the chamber and the lead ballast that had to go in it to be able to lower it into the water, a job that mostly fell on me: A 1-foot extension (sponson) was added on each side; the stern was extended 3 feet and adjusted to take two outboard engines. Ken asked me to come up with a name for the vessel and I named it Smygtittar’n, Swedish for “The tip-toeing looker”, or Peeping Tom. It quickly became known as “The Smyg” for short.

The Smyg worked very well as a platform for studying wild dolphins underwater. The only drawback was that, with the chamber down, it was very slow - with both 100 Hp commercial outboard engines at close to full throttle the Smyg only made about 4 knots. However, this was about the speed the spinner dolphins normally progressed down the coast in the mornings and since they were attracted to the vessel and mostly seemed to surround it, the speed rarely was an issue when observing the dolphins.

During the first season we still struggled with its poor handling when the chamber was up. Since we didn’t extend, nor modify the bow before shipping it to Hawaiʻi, it was also very slow when the chamber was up. This was due to its high weight, making it sit very low in the water, coupled with the square bow of the cathedral hull, making it act like a break. As a result, after the end of the first season, we ended up extending the bow by 20 inches and modified it to a regular, pointed bow. So in the end, what started as a 19 feet long by 6 feet wide vessel grew to 24 by 8 feet.

In the end, in spite of all the adjustment, the Smyg still had an achilles heel that we never could fix - its heavy weight for its small size. As with all of these vessels, the viewing chamber displaced a lot of water with all the air in it, which meant that this had to be compensated for by putting a lot of lead in the bottom of the various viewing chambers. Otherwise these chambers would have popped up, out of the water and capsized the vessels. In the case of the Smyg, this meant over 1.5 metric tons of lead in the bottom of the chamber. When the chamber was up, the hull of the Smyg felt all that extra weight and the 24 foot vessel settled significantly lower (about 1m or 3+ feet) in the water. As a result, we always felt compelled to stay within swimming distance from shore, just in case.

The result was an extremely stable platform. In fact a little too stable. When heading into waves with the chamber up, the Smyg tended to go through them rather than over them. However, when going at full speed with the swell and a swell caught up with us, it lifted the stern up and consequently tilted the bow down, to the point where the bow that had previously been over 1m (3+ feet) above the surface suddenly ended up well below the surface!!! Fortunately the cabin covered the whole front of the vessel, so no water came in, but as the front of the cabin now suddenly was at water level it acted as a huge break and the Smyg went from being on a plane and surfing with the swell at 16 knots or more, to almost dead in the water in a matter of seconds!! The first time this happened, everybody on board was sure that this was it! However, after coming to a stop in the water, the Smyg slowly came back up out of the water and we could continue on our way. This only happened on a handful of occasions, but they were all very memorable.

This vessel allowed us to raise the study of social organization and social behavior in large groups of wild dolphins to a completely new level.

  • We determined the sex of 52 males and 16 females.

  • We could observe who they associated with and how this fluctuated over time.

  • We showed that adult animals associating with very young calves were often adult males - not females as is sometimes assumed.

  • We also videotaped some 50 hours of focal animal follows underwater, documenting the social interactions between various constellations of spinner dolphins, such as adult males that were close associates, adult males that were not close associates, interactions between adult males and females and between adult females, as well as interactions between adult animals of both sexes with young calves.

Unfortunately once the study was over, the Smyg was sold for scraps, so it could not be used for future studies. However, it also had its drawbacks. So if we ever build the next generation underwater viewing vessel, we can give it the next set of upgrades so it will work even better than the Smyg.

In the end, this vessel became the greatest experience of my life, from the building to field testing to engineering solutions to modifying and working out how to make it work in the best possible way. The highlight of the whole experience was when I was able to drive the Smyg while Ken Norris was in the viewing chamber, photographing and observing the spinner dolphins along the Kona Coast. Ken had traveled to Hawaiʻi as part of his reporting for an article in National Geographic on “Dolphins in Crisis”, with photos by Flip Nicklin (See the September 1992 issue).

Book chapter where the underwater viewing vessels were described.

Norris, K.S. and Wells, R.S. (1994) Observing Dolphins Underwater. Pages 54-64 in: Norris, K.S., Würsig, B., Wells, R.S., Würsig, M. with Brownlee, S.M., Johnson, C., Solow, J. (1994) “The Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin”. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Norris, K. (September 1992) Dolphins in Crisis. National Geographic.