A little boy’s excited voice rose high and clear from the top deck of the American Star, a marine-mammal scouting vessel with the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, as fellow passengers ran to join him at the ship’s rail. The boat had left dock only about 15 minutes before, and already they had their first sighting: a trio of slate-colored bottlenose dolphins, gracefully cavorting in the waters below.
“We are spending our day today with some of the most intelligent animals we have on planet Earth,” Melissa Laurino, the center’s research director, said over the ship’s loudspeaker.
And while lots of the passengers may have heard that dolphins are smart, the next three hours, with Laurino as their guide, provided a treasure trove of information that most folks probably don’t know.
Like that dolphin mothers name their babies. It’s called a “signature whistle,” a series of high-pitch chirps and clicks that stick with its assignee for life. They’re used the way we use human names, to refer to each other.
And that no two dolphins’ dorsal fins — the back fins that stick out of the water — are identical. Like human fingerprints, they’re unique to each animal.
And that as sleek as grown dolphins appear, at birth they have hair, called lanugo. Hence the “dolphin mustache” that newborn calves often sport on the tips of their rostrums, or snouts.
And by the way? If a dolphin seems to be really checking you out when it pokes its head above water and gazes your way, it probably is.
“They can see us pretty much as well as we can see them,” Laurino said. “And they’re very curious.”
Laurino, 28, isn’t just a dolphin expert — she’s an expert on New Jersey’s dolphins, having studied them for the past nine years. So she knows that the bottlenose dolphins her passengers are ogling are migratory; many of them return to Cape May’s nutrient-rich waters year after year during the warm water months to feed, breed, and birth their calves.
Laurino, a marine biologist working with the whale watch’s nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Research Center of Cape May, collects and updates data on over 500 individual dolphins and submits it to the Mid-Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Catalog (MABDC), a collaborative effort of many research organizations that is curated through Duke University. The information is used to track the animals’ migration and movement.
The dolphins that Laurino studies are part of the Northern Migratory Coastal Stock of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, traveling as far north as New York in the warm water months and as far south as North Carolina during the colder months.
And she can’t believe she gets to share her fascination with these beautiful mammals with others. Indeed, she said, each trip on the water — even 10 years into her career — feels as new as the first one.
“I do not get bored — every day is different,” said Laurino. “You never know what you’re going to get out in nature.”
Laurino, daughter of a secretary and a retired Amtrak information officer, grew up in Linden (“136 off the Parkway”) and spent summer days on Brick Beach One. She can’t remember when she didn’t swim or how old she was when she began dreaming of a career with sea creatures.
“I just always knew,” she said.
At first, killer whales — orcas — were her heart’s desire.
“I did really enjoy the movie Free Willy,” she said, a film about an orca ultimately freed from captivity (the film hit theaters, auspiciously, the year Laurino was born). But her love of orcas easily morphed into love for dolphins, probably because both are considered to be toothed whales.
Laurino majored in marine biology at Stockton University, landed an internship with the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, and then, to enhance her research skills, earned a master’s degree in data science and strategic analytics at Stockton.
She’s now an adjunct biology professor at Stockton, where she incorporates her field work on dolphins and whales into her classes, and she‘s an animal care specialist at the university’s vivarium, tending to a variety of species including diamondback terrapins, poison dart frogs, lizards, snakes, mice, and other critters.
At the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, Laurino uses a study method called photo identification — using her own photographs and images she finds on social media — to daily track the 500-plus animals in her catalog of dolphins, adding to it all the time. Key to what she records and reviews are those very individual dorsal fins, each with its unique markings, nicks, notches, scars — even white patches. Every dolphin is assigned a number, and some have even been given nicknames.
There’s the female Tippy, so named because of the unusual white markings on the end of her dorsal fin. Laurino said Tippy was first officially documented in 2011 but had caught the eye of whale and dolphin watch passengers well before that, due her distinctive dorsal. Tippy has had quite a few calves in Cape May.
Another crowd-pleaser is Bender, a male dolphin named for his bent dorsal fin. Laurino first recorded him in 2017, but passengers had noted the dolphin with the lazy-looking dorsal long before.
Laurino also studies the dolphins’ behaviors, including the social interactions between different pods, or groups, of dolphins.
“What we have here in New Jersey is called a ‘fission-fusion’ society of bottlenose dolphins,” she said. “These societies are constantly moving around and mingling with other dolphins in the area.”
Behavior patterns — and even relationships — emerge as a result, she said.
For example, male dolphins — like Triscuit, Lightning, and Chance, to name three Cape May dudes — will go off together to find female company, sort of the way young human males cruise Shore night spots. Dolphins, also like humans (and some chimpanzees), mate for recreation as well as procreation.
Dolphins also will break into what Laurino calls “nursery pods,” in which female dolphins and their calves congregate together, like human moms and their toddlers on a playground. And dolphin moms are devoted, nursing their calves for two to three years.
One of Laurino’s favorite female dolphins returned to Cape May this year with her calf. Unlike the others, this unnamed mom (known as No. Tt0245, or 245 for short) has a large hump in front of her dorsal, possibly caused by a form of scoliosis, which appears to affect her movement.
“We’re always rooting for her,” Laurino said. “She doesn’t swim as well as the other ones, but she manages to keep up with the group. She comes back to Cape May each year, and has a successful calf that appears to be doing well. She’s defying the odds.”
Two interns have been assisting Laurino this summer, the way she once assisted the whale and dolphin watch veterans. The up-close experience has been inspiring for them.
Carli Brush-Stoll, 22, of West Long Branch, is currently applying to graduate school to study marine and environmental science. Her summer with Laurino has increased her passion for dolphins.
“I’m so in love,” she said. “I’m trying to find a photo I’ve taken, to tattoo on my arm. Every time I think, ‘This is the one.’ I didn’t know I could love them more, but I do.”
Brendan Gavaghen, 22, of Freehold, is heading into his last semester at Stockton as a marine biology major. His goal: a career in manatee conservation, supported by the kind of real life research and fieldwork that Laurino does. Working with her has given him a vision of his “dream job.”
“It’s been amazing,” he said. “I get to come out here and see incredible creatures most people never get to see.”
Laurino understands that unique excitement.
“The most enjoyable part of the job is seeing our Cape May dolphins every day,” she said. “I see them more than I see my friends and family.”
(As for life on land, Laurino resides in Cape May Beach with her husband, plus a border-collie mix rescue named Dexter; Robbie, a Yorkie they found roaming in the Florida Keys; and the newest addition, a stray kitten named Felix.)
Her hope is that helping people understand these creatures better will make them want to protect them. That includes not interfering with them in the wild — not trying to pet them, ride them, or feed them.
“We’re visitors to their home, their natural environment,” Laurino said. “We’re in their living room so we always need to give them the upmost respect and courtesy they deserve.”