Meet the Team: Hayley Knapp

Meet Hayley Knapp, research assistant for the Wild Dolphin Project.
Hayley Knapp grew up in Wichita, Kansas and water has always been an important part of her life, whether it was beach vacations, sailing on the lake, or competitively swimming. She in fell in love with dolphins when she was four-years-old and knew she would find a way work with them when she was older. “Most people assumed I would change my mind, especially since I was so young, but I never did. My parents have always been supportive of my dream and have always encouraged me to follow my heart. Now that I am, they love hearing about my adventures in the ocean doing what I love.”
For Hayley, she’s drawn to their intelligence. “Every time we get in the water to observe them, it feels like they are observing us just as much as we are observing them, and maybe they are. If you are ever blessed enough to have one look you in the eye, you can sense the immeasurable intelligence they possess and it is awe-inspiring.”

Here’s what Hayley had to say about her experience with the Wild Dolphin Project.

Q: How did you learn about WDP and what made you want to get involved?

A: I first heard about WDP from my mom back in 2012, when I was in eighth grade. She had seen Dr. Herzing’s TED Talk “Could we Speak the Language of Dolphins?” and I just created my first email account. She emailed the link to me, so it was the first email I received. I watched the video and saved the email (which I still have) until I was old enough to be an intern for WDP. In 2019, I was awarded a journey grant from my undergraduate college, William Jewell College, which covered the cost of my first intern trip that summer. I returned as an intern in 2021 and then again as a field assistant in 2022.
During the fall of 2021, I watched an online seminar of presenters, which included Dr. Cindy Elliser, Brittini Hill, Liah McPherson, and Dr. Michelle Green. Dr. Green was asked what her one wish would be in terms of dolphin genetics research and she replied, “to have a student willing to study poop.” Cassie emailed me immediately and encouraged me to reach out. I had recently finished volunteering with penguins at a zoo and getting pooped on was an hourly occurrence, so studying poop was not a deterrent. I took Cassie’s advice and Dr. Green, in conjunction with Dr. John Baldwin took me on as a graduate student.

Q: What has been your education path?

A: For my undergraduate degree, I attended William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, where I majored in biology, minored in Spanish, and swam competitively. Currently, I am working on my master’s degree through Florida Atlantic University. My thesis research is the “Post-exodus Paternity and Genetic Assessment of Dynamic Atlantic Spotted Dolphins on Great Bahama Bank.” It is a genetic assessment of the social interactions and merging that has been observed in the last five years according to Elliser, Volker, and Herzing 2022.
Given that the two groups of spotteds dolphins — those who moved and those who were already there — are socially integrating, we want to see if they are genetically integrating as well. In order to do this, we have to match fathers and mothers with the calves born after 2013, which is where I come in.

Q: What is your favorite experience with WDP?

A: Obviously every dolphin encounter is amazing and memorable, and I really like the playful encounters with juveniles. Those are my favorite. But aside from dolphins, I love the different passengers we have on the boat. There are so many unique and talented people that join us for research trips and they always make the trips even better. This past trip, we did a talent show one night and it was so much fun to learn about everyone’s various talents. Back in 2021, we did the Stenella Olympics and that was a hilarious way to end the trip. In both cases, the passengers encouraged the goofy interactions.

Q: Was anything surprising about your first trip or not what you expected? What do you think people might be surprised to learn about living at sea and studying dolphins? 

My very first trip was a prime example of dolphins not showing up. We left on a Tuesday and did not see dolphins until the following Monday. It was a very long dolphin dry spell of just motoring around and searching, until we finally had an encounter. Living at sea to study dolphins does not always guarantee dolphins. They are wild creatures and if they don’t feel like approaching the boat or making their presence known, then they won’t show up. Just because we are in their home, doesn’t mean we will see them every day. They can be very elusive.

Q: What would you want people to know about WDP and dolphins in the Bahamas. Any advice for aspiring marine mammal scientists?

A: WDP is a great way to learn about wild dolphins. The trips are the perfect way to learn about field work and the method of studying and observing the spotted dolphins is a perfect way to develop respect for wild animals in their natural habitat.
As for advice to aspiring marine mammal scientists, never give up on your dreams. Becoming a marine mammal scientist is a long road, and it can look very different for each individual. Being from Kansas, I had to start by studying marine invertebrate fossils while walking dogs at a shelter, volunteering at a vet clinic, or working with penguins at a zoo. Just because your journey looks different from someone else’s doesn’t mean it’s the wrong one. Just because you’re living in a landlocked state, doesn’t mean you will never work in or near the ocean. All it takes is determination, passion, and the right opportunities.

Q: What do you hope to do after graduating with your master’s degree?

A: After I complete my master’s degree, I would love to work for a nonprofit where I can continue researching dolphins. I am considering going for my doctorate degree, but am undecided at this moment. I know I do not want to stay in academia and teach, that has never been a desire of mine. But I love the water and boats, so I’d be happy out in the field doing research in the future.

Q: Do you have a favorite dolphin? 

A: Yes! My favorite dolphin is one of Nassau’s offspring. His name is Nugget and he was first seen in 2019 on my first intern trip. At the end of that trip, we were allowed to suggest and vote on names for him, which I have since learned is very uncommon. I suggested “Nugget” because one of my close friends has a tendency to call me nugget and that was the winning name. I have never forgotten that. He had a rough couple of early years which resulted in him losing an eye (reason still unknown); however, Nugget is still around and finally has his first spot! I actually had a few encounters with this handsome guy this summer, which was amazing.

Q: What’s your favorite part about living at sea on a boat – what’s your least favorite part?

A: My favorite part about living at sea on a boat is being able to wake up to the ocean. One of your first sights in the morning is the sunrise above the ocean, and that is a beautiful sight. It is peaceful and serene. Being able to work in the fresh air, sun, and salt is a blessing made possible by living on a boat. One of your last sights each night is the sunset followed by so many stars. Constellations are so hard to see when you live in or near cities. When you live on the boat, you get to see them every night (weather permitting of course).
My least favorite part is the weather. Sometimes it is too windy and the waves too rough to have dolphin encounters, let alone find the dolphins. Sometimes it storms a lot. Sometimes the wind dies but the sun shines so intensely you burn regardless of the sunscreen. Weather is so unpredictable, which makes it challenging to adjust to life on a boat. But that’s also part of the adventure. Sure we all wish for perfect, glassy field days; however, those don’t always happen.