24 February 2020

A passion to protect dolphins

Linley Boniface

Colombian Ph.D. student Jessica Patiño-Pérez is taking her dolphin research out of the lab and into the ocean.

Jessica Patiño-Pérez was five when she fell in love with dolphins.

Now the Colombian Ph.D. student is studying dolphins in one of the most beautiful natural environments in the world – New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf, on Auckland’s east coast. 

“I love the ocean and I love all marine mammals, but dolphins have always been my favourite. They’re very intelligent, charismatic and interesting animals,” says Jessica. 

“When I was little, I wanted to be a dolphin trainer to be close to dolphins. Now I want to do everything I can to protect them.”

Jessica moved to New Zealand to study the effects of noise pollution in marine animals for her master’s degree at Massey University. She started studying bottlenose dolphins in 2015, for her Ph.D. 

For Jessica, studying in New Zealand has been a time of personal growth – a chance to become more independent, develop her research skills, experience another culture and develop a strong professional network. 

“Studying in New Zealand was hard at the beginning because I came here by myself, without my family. But now I’m really enjoying it,” says Jessica. 

She says she has been encouraged to ask questions, express her opinions and develop her own ideas. 

Jessica has had the same supervisor, Professor Dianne Brunton, for both her master’s degree and her PhD.

“Dianne is so welcoming to all her international students. She has been very supportive and always wants to know how I am – personally as well as academically,” says Jessica.

“As a PhD student, it’s very important to have a supervisor who fits your personality. Dianne is my perfect match.”

Jessica has also enjoyed the New Zealand education system’s focus on hands-on, practical learning. 

For Jessica, field research involves jumping into a boat, heading out to the gulf and spending two or three days photographing and recording bottlenose dolphins. 

She’s able to put her theoretical learning into practice, collecting important data on endangered dolphins to give us a clearer idea of how we can protect them in the future. 

Jessica is studying the acoustics and social networks among a group of dolphins living around Great Barrier Island, one of more than 50 islands in the gulf. 

In the photo above, Jessica is putting a drone into the ocean to record video of the dolphins. She previously used a camera, but a drone is more effective. 

She loves carrying out her research in a country where it’s so easy to experience nature and the outdoors.  

“The accessibility is amazing. I can catch a ferry out of Auckland into the Hauraki Gulf and see six or seven species of marine mammal,” Jessica says. 

“In Colombia I grew up surrounded by mountains, but in New Zealand I am surrounded by the ocean. This is my place.” 

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About the contributors
Linley Boniface

Linley Boniface is a contract writer for Education New Zealand. She is based in Wellington, her favourite city in New Zealand. A former journalist, Linley spent a year in Montreal, Canada, as a secondary school student.