Assistant professor merges passion for marine mammals with research and teaching

Catherine Campbell,

Contact: John Schacke,

Between teaching courses on marine mammal biology and conservation, and serving as the director of the Georgia Dolphin Ecology Program (GDEP), Odum School of Ecology Assistant Professor Dr. John Schacke goes above and beyond for his passions. 

It all started with a plane ride along the Georgia coast with a friend. 

Schacke had been practicing clinical psychology at a Master’s level in Pennsylvania when his interest in marriage and family therapy brought him to UGA for further study. After receiving his Ph.D. in Family Development in 1984, he set up a private practice in Athens. 

“If 30 years ago somebody had said I’d be sitting here talking with you about how I changed careers in midstream to work with dolphins, I’d say ‘You’re nuts,’” Schacke said. “I never expected to be doing this stuff. I really love it, I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing, but I never anticipated this was going to happen.” 

Schacke has a commercial pilot’s license, so in the late 1980s when an acquaintance who worked with a dolphin research group in Savannah asked Schacke to take him flying along the Georgia coast, he said yes. There were already surveys counting dolphins from boats, and he wanted to see if these could be done from the air. With the advantage of an aerial view, this endeavor proved easy. 

“I was introduced to his group and long story short, I was intrigued by the idea of volunteer science. The more I got into it, the more I got into it. I really got fascinated by the whole thing and found out that it resonated with me both intellectually and emotionally, to the point where I decided on a career change,” Schacke said. 

From there, Schacke joined the research program and learned entirely through hands-on experience. As his fascination grew, so did his involvement. Eventually, Schacke and his friend, Dan Odell, a “luminary” in marine mammal science, began the self-funded research program that would become GDEP. 

“We selected the central Georgia coast as our study site because it hadn’t received much attention before. Over time we were able to get some grant support that enabled us to get students involved and gradually build up the scope of GDEP to the point where we’re now covering half the Georgia coast,” Schacke said. 

GDEP studies populations of bottlenose dolphins from Ossabaw Sound to Doboy Sound. They look primarily at abundance, distribution, residency, habitat use, and social organization. With photo identification, the team is able to keep track of the dolphins without making physical contact, based on visible differences in their dorsal fins. 

“From these photographs we can identify individual dolphins, observe family and kinship relationships, and see how dolphins are utilizing features and areas of their habitats in their daily lives,” Schacke said.

GDEP’s work, providing information on dolphin stock structure to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is vital in filling what was once referred to as the “Georgia gap” in stock assessment data. They now have about 11 years’ worth of data to analyze and contribute. 

“When we first started this study, we thought there was a single dolphin population along the Georgia coast. We now have some indications that there may be as many as three. By looking at seasonal and annual abundance, and distribution and habitat utilization, we’re beginning to assemble a picture of how many dolphins there are along the central Georgia coast,” Schacke said. 

While his career seems to have taken a drastic turn, Schacke said he draws on his background in human psychology in analyzing the behaviors and social interactions of the dolphins he studies. 

“Dolphins are highly social creatures and their brains are, in some ways, very similar to ours. They set up hierarchies like we do, they establish social bonds like we do, they have natal groups and kinship groups like we do. It’s not unreasonable to expect to see some of the behaviors that we find in human relationships and human society also in dolphin relationships and societies,” Schacke said.  

At Odum, Schacke teaches a spring course on the biology and conservation of marine mammals, which he says also contributes to the GDEP by informing his research and what he does in the field. 

“Frankly, I jumped at the chance to teach,” Schacke said. “Teaching keeps me sharp. These students are smart and they challenge me constantly, and it’s one of the things I love about teaching. I like the inquisitiveness that my students bring to the table. Some of the best research questions I’ve ever had and some of the best stuff I’ve learned about dolphins comes from student questions.” 

Before the disruption of COVID, Schacke taught a Maymester course on the Georgia coast taking a team of undergraduate and graduate students to Savannah and Charleston to visit conservation sites run by NOAA, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. 

“For all intents and purposes, GDEP is an undergraduate research program. It’s a good opportunity for students to see fieldwork in action.  They learn a bit about field methodology and how to conduct a real-world research program,” Schacke said. 

Schacke described a fond memory from a particularly hot day during one of these Maymesters, when he and his team of students were able to witness a simultaneous sunrise and moonset on the water–an experience that only the appearance of two dolphins, a mother and calf pair, could embellish.

“It really was awesome in the true meaning of that word. You know, you’re seeing this celestial event, which is common, but with that event and the mother dolphin and calf just cruising by, it was really pretty magical,” Schacke said. 

Schacke’s advice to students struggling to determine their career path is to take the time to explore and be open to the role of serendipity.

“College is a time for students to explore their interests and try out different things. What I encourage students to do is to not put on the blinders, don’t get so focused on one thing that you miss other opportunities. If something grabs your attention, run with it.”