By Natalie Strom
Marco Island’s dolphin population is asking for our help. According to researchers on The Dolphin Explorer, a sight-seeing vessel out of Rose Marco River Marina, there is a local population of roughly 60 to 70 bottlenose dolphins. These dolphins roam within the Marco River, around Isles of Capri, Keewaydin Island and down into the 10,000 Islands near Cape Romano. Seymour, an eight-year old “local” bottlenose dolphin, was recently found to have a serious injury to his tail. With help from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), a plan is in line to rescue Seymour. That is, if he can be found.
Marco Island Sea Excursions Inc. owner, Rocky Beaudry, partnered with Chris Desmond, Master Mariner and Founder of the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project to “provide an eco-tour that would involve the public in an effort to document the local bottlenose dolphin population.” This long-term study, which launched in February of 2006, “tracks the abundance, distribution, movement, association patterns and behaviors of bottlenose dolphins of Southwest Florida.” Desmond, along with four other marine professionals accompany Sea Excursion’s Dolphin Explorer on a daily basis to continually gather information on the area’s dolphins. As the only ongoing study of wild dolphins in Southwest Florida, researchers of the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project have identified and named over 200 dolphins in the area. These dolphins are identified by their dorsal fins which are all unique; much like a human fingerprint.
While over 200 dolphins have been accounted for throughout the years, “Seymour was one of the first dolphins we observed when we began conducting surveys in 2006. At the time he was a young calf. Since then we have logged over 200 sightings of this dolphin,” explains Kent Morse, Resident Naturalist and Manager of photo-identification and data analysis for the project, through his blog at dolphin-study.com. Now about eight years old, or in his “teenage years,” Seymour’s time spent in the area has given him the right to be known as a Marco “local.”
Seymour’s injury is quite similar to that of Winter the dolphin from the recent blockbuster movie, “Dolphin Tale.” As far as the research team on The Dolphin Explorer can tell, Seymour has monofilament line cutting into his “peduncle,” or the area just above his tail. The peduncle portion of a dolphin’s body helps control the mammal’s speed and general movement. This injury is causing Seymour pain, decreased activity and could eventually lead to a loss in tail function.
His injury was originally documented by the research team on December 10, 2011 and was subsequently reported to NOAA. Blair Mase of the National Marine Fisheries Services, the branch of NOAA which regulates marine mammal rescue, explains the procedure involved when an injured dolphin is reported. “We ask the original reporter to supply photographs of the injured animal that we then submit to an expert panel of veterinarians and biologists who have extensive experience with bottlenose dolphins. The panel will review all information and comment on whether or not the entanglement is life-threatening.” A recommendation on whether or not to intervene is then reported by the panel. “We want to be prudent in choosing a candidate that needs our help and in this case our expert panel has determined that (Seymour’s) injury is life-threatening.” Seymour was approved for a rescue intervention on December 21.
Yet, this rescue will not be an easy task. While Seymour is certainly in need of medical attention, he is still traveling the waters around Marco. Before the rescue operation can take place, NMFS needs to have a much better idea as to where Seymour is spending his time due to the extreme effort involved in rescuing a wild dolphin. “We typically have five to seven boats and about 35 people that are involved in the rescue, all who have experience with wild dolphins” adds Mase. “This is a very specialized effort.” Biologists, veterinarians, professional dolphin catchers and other extremely qualified personnel are all involved in the rescue process. Without proper tracking locations of Seymour, the costly effort to rescue him could become fruitless.
A flyer has been circulating around Marco Island featuring a photo of Seymour’s distinct dorsal fin as well as a photo of his injury. As Kristen Froehlich, Education and Media Specialist for The Dolphin Explorer, explains, ”we are asking for help, especially from people who live along the canals and those who have boats and are out on the water. We need more current, less sporadic sightings (of Seymour). We also think that he is hiding in shallow areas near the mangroves, but will come out to feed. We have been seeing him mostly near the Marco Bridge.”
In fact, Seymour was sighted as recently as Saturday, February 4, just outside of the Rose Marco River Marina along the Marco River. These are the types of sightings that are necessary for the rescue. Blair Mase and the members of the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project are excited to get the word out about Seymour but want to remind the general public that he is a wild animal. “It’s really important that people keep their distance when seeing Seymour. We don’t want to harass him or cause him more stress in any way,” explains Mase.
Those who see Seymour are asked to call NOAA’s Marine Mammal Rescue Hotline at (888)304-FWCC (3922). Kent Morse of The Dolphin Explorer can also be reached at 239-398- 0708 if a sighting has been made. The team needs to chart time and location of all sightings, including longitude and latitude if available. Again, all organizations involved have stressed the importance of keeping a safe distance from Seymour if sighted.
Word of Seymour’s predicament has reached as far as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade students at Crafton Elementary School have been following his story through their interactive learning program with The Dolphin Explorer. Susan Kosko, teacher to these children, visited Marco Island and took a trip on The Dolphin Explorer which subsequently led to a “career-changing experience” for her. With the help of Chris Desmond, The Dolphin Project has brought positive results in both reading comprehension and conservation concerns for her students. They have been improving reading comprehension by choosing books such as “Dolphin Tale” to learn more about the open ocean. As Susan comments, “my most intriguing observation is how students are gaining an awareness of the world and that each can make a difference and positive impact on the wildlife environment through their actions.”
Their actions, in fact, have already raised $100 through a cookie dough fundraiser they held in December. They have also collaborated with a local Pizza Hut and Barnes and Noble Bookstore to raise more money for Seymour’s eventual care. As dolphins eat between 10 to 30 pounds of fish a day, the money these students are raising for Seymour will greatly benefit the rescue sanctuary he will eventually go to for rehabilitation.
As one of the first dolphins spotted by The 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project in 2006, Seymour was given his name as researchers continued to “see more” of him on their excursions. He is now easily identified not only through his distinct dorsal fin but also by his “dolphinality.” Similar to humans, dolphins are extremely intelligent and have their own personality. As an eight-year old dolphin, Seymour has a long life ahead of him if he can be rescued. However, without the help of Marco Island residents, we won’t be seeing more of Seymour.
To read The Dolphin Explorer’s blog regarding Seymour and other local dolphins, visit www. dolphin-study.com. If you come in contact with an injured marine mammal, remember to keep your distance and call the Florida Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922). To learn more about living safely with dolphins visit http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/dolphinsmart/ or http://dontfeedwilddolphins.org/
Those who see Seymour are asked to call NOAA’s Marine Mammal Rescue Hotline at (888)304-FWCC (3922).