A Week of Wanderings in Thailand

Justine Jackson-Ricketts is an National Geographic Young Explorer studying a rare and elusive species of dolphin called the Irrawaddy dolphin. By taking a closer look at their diet, Justine can help determine whether or not Irrawaddy dolphins eat the same types of fish, squid, and crustaceans caught by fisheries in the Gulf of Thailand. This will help determine how vulnerable they are to the effects of overfishing. 


My most recent expedition to the Trat Province coast of the Gulf of Thailand as part of the Trat Coastal Dolphin Project marked my final season of field research for my dissertation. Behind me lay nearly 24 hours of travel, a trip to the National Research Council of Thailand’s Bangkok offices for a foreign researcher permit, and not enough sleep.

I got lost in this building trying to find the Foreign Researcher Office
I got lost in this building trying to find the Foreign Researcher Office. Photo by Justine Jaskson-Ricketts.

Ahead of me lay more travel to the province of Samut Sakhon and a month of field work. My travel companions for this first leg were Dr. Louisa Ponnampalam from the University of Malaya, and Ms. Anoukchika Ilangakoon, a freelance marine mammal researcher from Sri Lanka.

In Samut Sakhon, we visited a friend, Dr. Kanjana Adulyanukosol, at her office, a branch of the Thai Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, the organization with which we collaborate. On the way, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch, where the woman serving us spooned a fly out of one of the dishes and promptly dropped it back in. We stayed two nights at an old apartment building badly in need of repairs; a large crack in my bathroom ceiling had been patched with masking tape.

Masking tape over a crack in my bathroom ceiling in Samut Sakhon
Masking tape over a crack in my bathroom ceiling in Samut Sakhon. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts.

My room overlooked a shanty-town for laborers from Myanmar and their families. Samut Sakhon is Thailand’s largest fish oil supplier, a business that draws these workers. During our visit we were given a tour of the facility and adjacent mangrove forest and had two lovely dinners with Kanjana, who presented us with her newest book about Bryde’s whales (large baleen whales with a worldwide temperate and tropical distribution) and a desk calendar.

The beautiful Bryde's whale book and calendar from Kanjana
The beautiful Bryde’s whale book and calendar from Kanjana. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts.

Our mangrove tour included a terrifying golden tree snake, a beautiful egret, and some much-needed nature after Bangkok’s concrete and haze.

Golden Tree Snake
Golden Tree Snake. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts.
Sign on our mangrove walk in Samut Sakhon
Sign on our mangrove walk in Samut Sakhon. Photo by Justine Jackson-Ricketts.

We always eat well in Thailand as long as the Thais choose the restaurant and this was no exception. The first restaurant was part of a shopping mall, very modern, and decorated with nonsense English phrases (“eat, I ate, I eaten”; “zaap I like it”; “welcome++”; “so cool lifestyle”; “reward for you mouth”; “delecious”).

The second restaurant was in stark contrast to the first and what I am used to in Thailand: a single food cart and outdoor seating. On our second evening, project leader, Dr. Ellen Hines, joined us. The next morning (January 11th), we headed to the Suvarnabhumi International Airport to collect Isabelle Groc, the photojournalist who was to spend ten days with us. She joined us last year, but we didn’t see any dolphins while she was there, leaving her without photos to accompany her article.

The café we chose for breakfast on the way served ham and cheese sandwiches, but not cheese sandwiches, so my veggie self was left with the sugar-high-inducing alternative, a sweetened condensed milk sandwich. After picking up Isabelle, we climbed into yet another van for the long ride down to our first base of operations, a charming homestay called Ban Sulada in the town of Laem Ngop owned by a Thai woman and her American husband.

Ban Sulada Homestay in Laem Ngop
Ban Sulada Homestay in Laem Ngop

The sunset over our last night before the start of field work was stunning and felt like a good omen, reminding me why I love working in such a beautiful location.

Sunset over Koh Chang from Ban Sulada homestay
Sunset over Koh Chang from Ban Sulada homestay
Fishermen preparing to go out for the night
Fishermen preparing to go out for the night


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Meet the Author
I am a Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Daniel Costa's lab in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of California Santa Cruz. My dissertation project focuses on Irrawaddy dolphins in the Gulf of Thailand, a subpopulation that has been studied by Dr. Ellen Hines and colleagues since 2008. I am studying their habitat, diet, lifetime movements, and potential interactions with humans. I grew up in a small town in Virginia and received my Bachelor of Science degree from Duke University in 2010. My ultimate career goal is to become a science writer so I can bring science to everyone and show people why it's actually really awesome.