While doing field research on Mornington Peninsula, Pippa caught a lucky break and was part of a fantastic story of conservation success.

‘Wow – did you see that?!’

I didn’t even need to pick up the binoculars around my neck. Right there, ten metres from the beach were four dolphins, chasing each other through azure waters, their fins slicing the calm of the surface.

We sat for an hour, watching them play. The sun was hot and I’m pretty sure I left rosier than I started, but I can’t say I regret it.


‘Yep, we definitely picked the right place for an internship.’

The Mornington Peninsula is known for its rugged coastlines, boutique wineries, and epic surf breaks (unless you’re a kook like me, in which case the rips and reef can be terrifying!). But what you might not realise is that it’s also home to one of Australia’s only growing dolphin populations.

As part of my Conservation Biology degree, I was recommended to undertake a six-month work placement. I’ve always loved dolphins – for a while I stopped saying they were my favourite animal because too many people said it was cliché. But when I found out that rather than studying bacteria under a microscope, I could spend my time on the beach doing field research for the Dolphin Research Institute (DRI) in Hastings, Victoria, I dove at the opportunity. 


What dolphin species does the DRI study?

In Victoria, there are three main species of dolphins – the Common bottlenose dolphin, the Short-beaked common dolphin, and the Orca, or killer whale (yes, fun fact, this is a type of dolphin!). The species most regularly seen around Port Phillip Bay is the Common bottlenose dolphin, as Short-beaked dolphins and Orcas generally live in the deeper, open ocean. 

However, around 2005, the DRI made an epic discovery – a small group of around eight Short-beaked common dolphins pottering around the Mornington Peninsula. 

The team were ecstatic. And, as their excitement grew, so did the pod. Today, there are over 80 dolphins listed in the DRI’s Short-beaked common dolphin Fin-ID catalogue, as well as over 100 Common bottlenose dolphins. 

Read more: The Unique Aussie Dolphins You’ve Probably Never Heard Of


What’s a Fin-ID catalogue?

Dolphins can be identified through the markings on their dorsal fin (the one on the top). So, when researchers are making observations they try to capture images of fins, to track the dolphins in a non-invasive way. 

Over 31 years, the DRI has collected over 130,000 identification pictures, taken by a combination of trained researchers and volunteer scientists. This data was then used to build a picture of the population’s size, the relationships between individuals, general measures of dolphin health and other information that’s needed for their protection. 

This data recently led to a very exciting discovery.


It’s an old-fashioned detective story…

First, let me introduce you to Bud. Her name stands for ‘Banged-up Dolphin’ (charming, I know), and you can see from these pictures that she’s taken on her fair share of beatings. Yep, dolphins aren’t always the pleasant-mannered creatures they’re made out to be in cartoons.



However, despite her injuries, Bud’s top-notch immune system meant she survived into adulthood and recently welcomed a baby into the pod – Lucky!

Lucky has also been identified by the DRI through his dorsal fin markings (as you can tell, he’s copped a couple of injuries too). 

Here’s a beautiful family photo of the two of them together (awwww).


As wholesome as this is, it gets more interesting…

DRI researcher David had a hunch – could Lucky’s family history be traced back to when the Short-beaked common dolphins first arrived in Port Phillip Bay? He spent days combing through Fin-ID photos, tracking Bud all the way back to 2013, when she was only a newborn.

And… there it was! A photo of Bud with her own mum, Ester, one of the original Short-beaked common dolphins spotted in the Bay. The first concrete proof of three generations of this dolphin species in Port Phillip Bay.

So, what’s the point?

The point is that science works. 

The Mornington Peninsula has a growing, and diversifying, dolphin population. By comparison, in 2021, the South Australian government began an investigation into why their dolphin populations were dying out. 



Without the countless hours dedicated by passionate volunteers, we would have a much poorer understanding of dolphin populations in the region, and how to best protect them.

I feel so privileged to be a part of this project, to play even a tiny role in protecting these magnificent creatures. If you’d like to help too, you can ‘adopt a dolphin’ and directly support the DRI’s research, education, and leadership programs.

Lucky, Bud and Ester all thank you!