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Dolphin Defense
Tech 797 students devise a way to save the La Plata
By Betty Lynne Leary

Along the sun-splashed coast of Argentina, a small dolphin forages for food. The five-foot, 90-pound La Plata dolphin slices through the water, using sensitive sonar to hunt for fish, squid and shrimp. But since a fisherman's gillnet can't be detected by sonar, almost a thousand of these little-known and rarely seen mammals drown each year after chance encounters with nets.

Far to the north, three UNH mechanical engineering students, Paul Gamache '07, Chris Anason '07 and Sam Lightner '07, spent last winter designing and building a 10-foot-long frame out of PVC pipe. The frame will cradle a La Plata dolphin securely and safely in the water so its vocalizations can be recorded.

"A biologist in Argentina who studies these dolphins wondered if we could record the sonar characteristics of the La Plata," explains Gamache. The goal was to find out what frequency the dolphins use to communicate and while foraging. The animal's sonar will be recorded with three underwater microphones, but the sounds they are attempting to record last only milliseconds; a special computer records and stores the data at speeds up to one million samples per second. With this data, scientists may be able to predict what the dolphins can and cannot detect in the water, which in turn may lead to devices that can be attached to gillnets to warn the dolphins away.

This unlikely pairing of biology and engineering transpired last fall when the three students teamed up in their Tech 797 course. After the biology and engineering majors in the class heard presentations on ongoing research projects from a number of faculty members, the trio offered their services to Kenneth Baldwin '77G, professor of mechanical and ocean engineering. Baldwin had begun studying the La Plata dolphin in 1999 after meeting the Argentinian biologist, Pablo Bordino.

"It's a good experience for students to work with people in other disciplines," says Rob Swift, professor of mechanical and ocean engineering and one of the course's organizers. "People who have different perspectives ask different questions." One multidisciplinary team worked on a system for kelp farming: Student engineers designed a platform to grow kelp in the open ocean, while biology students cultured kelp in the lab.

The projects often expand horizons. "I've developed a passion for ocean stuff," Anason says. Gamache has a new interest in ocean engineering. "I am looking at more school after graduation," he says, "and I hope to enter that field."

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