Sunday | December 10, 2017
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New app may help protect wild dolphins

Multiple times per day in Hawaii, people swim, snorkel, kayak, dive and paddle in the shallow protected bays dolphins frequent to rest. The encounters leave many mesmerized and enthralled, further deepening their affections for the marine mammal.

However, a proliferation of these interactions is causing concern.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service and several researchers, such interactions have increased over the past decade and are adversely affecting dolphins. These acts, done mostly for human enjoyment, are interfering with the dolphins’ natural behavior, displacing them from essential habitats, and causing them to not “regain the optimum vigilance level needed to forage and protect themselves from threats such as predators or close-approaching boats.”

To help protect dolphins, Demi Fox developed The Naia Guide. It’s a free app that teaches people how to enjoy the hundreds of dolphins in Hawaiian waters, but from a distance and in a responsible way.

With the help of her adviser David Johnston and the Marine Conservation Ecology Group at Duke University, it took Fox about a year to make the app. She first made a paper flip book and then used Kleverbeast, a new app creation platform for the tablets. Fox said she created the app, in part, to fulfill her master’s degree in environmental management at Duke University’s School of the Environment. She now works are a postgraduate researcher at the Lenfest Ocean Program in Beaufort, N.C.

With the exploding popularity of apps, Fox said it made perfect sense to “harness the power of this technology” to “illuminate the problem,” as well as communicate the best-known science and conservation of dolphins. She also viewed it as a great opportunity to connect to a wide range of users, and in a user-friendly way. She thinks multimedia mobile tools have the power to change awareness and therefore spur action. She hopes her app will serve as “an ecological conscience” for Hawaii residents and visitors.

While in Kona last March, Fox witnessed firsthand how dolphins are threatened by the continual disruption of their rest. Approaching dolphins closely and physically interacting with them alters their behavior — all of which can be considered harassment. She saw the need for more knowledge and awareness, believing most people are unaware of the serious implications of interacting with dolphins, and if informed, they would make better decisions.

As a field researcher, Fox spent a month here assisting with the Spinner Dolphin Acoustics, Population Parameters and Human Impacts Research project, a collaboration between Duke University and Murdoch University. The Naia Guide shares the project’s research and techniques. For instance, researchers are using a digital theodolite to track the movements of dolphins within Kealakekua, Kauhako, Honaunau and Makako bays.

Available on iPads, the guide provides information, maps, photos, audio and video explaining dolphin ecology in relation to disruptive tourism practices. It also relays the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s viewing guidelines and spreads awareness about Dolphin SMART, a multifaceted program that promotes responsible viewing and stewardship of wild dolphins while recognizing commercial businesses in Hawaii that voluntarily participate. Dolphin SMART provided funding for the app.

To download it, go to Apple’s iTunes Store or