DURHAM, N.C. – A new mobile app created by a Nicholas School student is helping tourists better understand how their actions affect one of Hawaii’s most popular and charismatic marine species.

Recent graduate Demi Fox (MEM ’13) created the interactive iPad app, called the Nai‘a Guide, as part of her master’s project. It provides tourists with detailed information on Hawaiian spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris longirostris) and sustainable opportunities to observe them.

The Nai‘a Guide is available as a free download on the Apple App Store for iPad.

Hawaiian spinner dolphins, locally called ‘nai‘a’, are known for their acrobatic ‘spins’ as they jump out of the water and rotate before re-entry. They forage offshore at night and return to shallow bays along Hawaii’s Kona coast to rest during the day.

However, the dolphins’ rest is often disturbed by tour boats that follow them too closely and over-eager snorkelers who try to touch or ride them. These interruptions make it difficult for nai‘a to get the rest they need to forage effectively.

That’s where Fox’s new app comes in.

“Spinner dolphins are really important to the culture, ecology, and economy of Hawaii. We need to change the way that they are viewed. With the Nai‘a Guide, we’re raising awareness and helping tourists to realize that their actions can limit the dolphins’ ability to rest,” she says.

The guide draws on data and media from ongoing research by scientists at Duke and Murdoch University in Western Australia. It includes details on sustainable dolphin-watching practices championed by Dolphin SMART, a joint program of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Dolphin Ecology Project, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Dolphin SMART supported the Nai‘a Guide’s development.

Fox hopes the new guide will encourage tourists to develop an “ecological conscience” that extends far beyond their dolphin-viewing experience.

A key part of her master’s projects was studying how people perceive, and respond to, information like that provided by the new app. “I gave a survey to people both before and after watching a clip about dolphin ecology, and found that those who had watched the clip were more likely to be aware of the impact of intense human interactions,” she says.

These reactions, she says, suggest that “the principles in the Nai‘a Guide can be applied elsewhere, for other conservation issues. I did a lot of research on existing mobile conservation apps, and they are a tool for change that could be better utilized.”

David W. Johnston, assistant professor of the practice of Marine Conservation and Ecology at the Duke Marine Lab and Fox’s advisor for the project, agrees. He sees a lot of potential for future crossovers between research and apps.

“In my lab, we work on pressing conservation issues that are affecting both people and ecosystems. So when we’re working on our data, we try to translate hardcore science into accessible information and then communicate it in ways that allow people to actually use it in their lives. I think Demi really nailed it with the Nai‘a Guide—it’s in a format that’s informative and accessible,” Johnston says.

“There was definitely a steep learning curve!” Fox says. “But now that the app has been released, I’m amazed at the number of people that I can reach. In combination with the @naiaguide Twitter account, Facebook account, and the Nai‘a Guide website, we have the chance to really effect change for these animals.”

Work on the Nai‘a Guide hasn’t stopped with the app’s release. Johnston and Fox are now tracking analytics for the app—how many downloads, what pages are most looked at, how it is being used—and planning future expansion to it.

“We’d definitely like to make it cross-platform, and link it more deeply to the user and traveler experience, with social media integration and additional information. Highlighting personal, sustainable dolphin-tour experiences and helping people to interact with each other and the app in that way would be great,” Johnston says.

“It was really exciting and gratifying to watch Demi translate her ideas into an actual software-based app,” he adds. “She took a set of sketches and bullet points and turned it into something quite amazing,”

Fox’s master’s project, “The Nai‘a Guide: An Ecological Conscience Guide to Spinner Dolphin Tourism in Hawaii” was named a Nicholas School Exemplary Master’s Project for 2013.