By Natalie Strom
The news of Seymour the dolphin’s rescue on Friday, March 9th, reached far and wide as a team of 26 people in six boats helped save his life. Locals had come to know of Seymour’s plight thanks to the research of The Dolphin Explorer, a sightseeing vessel that traverses the waters around Marco Island.
Seymour, an eight-year old bottlenose dolphin, was originally tracked in 2006 by The Dolphin Explorer’s Ten Thousand Islands Dolphin Project. The project, which began that same year, “is a long term study of the abundance, distribution, movement, association patterns and behavior of bottlenose dolphins of Southwest Florida. Using ‘photo-identification,’ dolphins are identified by their dorsal fins which act as their ‘fingerprints.’”
While over 200 dolphins have been identified since 2006, Seymour is a part of the “local” Marco-area dolphin population which consists of about 60 to 70 bottlenose dolphins. Seymour was not only one of the first dolphins to be identified by the project, but has since been documented well over 200 times. Thanks to the keen eye of the members of The Dolphin Explorer, Seymour was identified to have an injury to his tail, or fluke. On December 10, 2011, the crew contacted the National Marine Fisheries Services, a branch of NOAA that regulates marine mammal rescues.
According to Allison Garrett, Communications Specialist for NOAA Fisheries Service’s Southeast Regional Office/Science Center, Seymour, “became entangled in fishing line in the Ten Thousand Islands area, a chain of islands off the coast of southwest Florida between Cape Romano and Marco Island. The fishing line was surrounding the dolphin’s tail and could have possibly impacted Seymour’s long-term survival.”
Blair Mase of the National Marine Fisheries adds, “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. However, NOAA needed more sightings of Seymour before a rescue team could be sent out. “This is a very specialized effort,” adds Mase. Without proper tracking locations of Seymour, the costly effort to rescue him would have been fruitless.
So the “search for Seymour” began to spread thanks to word of mouth and by fliers distributed by The Dolphin Explorer crew. “I think the word principally got out because of Coastal Breeze’s first article (about Seymour),” adds Chris Desmond, Captain of The Dolphin Explorer. From that point, people began to get involved. “Marco River Marina donated boats to help us search, people donated time to pass out circulars, boat captains were even calling in sightings.”
“One of the days, James Livaccari (Biologist and Researcher for the Dolphin Project) and I were working on the boat and someone called into the Marina and said, ‘we see your dolphin right out here in Factory Bay.’ So we hopped in my boat immediately and were able to follow him for five hours,” adds Kent Morse, Resident Naturalist and Manager of Photo-identification/Data Analysis for the Ten Thousand Islands Dolphin Project.
“The requirement on our part was to have a sighting five days before either Thursday or Friday of (the rescue week). We were able to sight him three times; twice on Tuesday and once on Wednesday. They then said they would be coming down on Friday,” Desmond continues.
“They” consisted of biologists, veterinarians, professional dolphin catchers and other extremely qualified personnel from NOAA Fisheries Service, Sea World Orlando, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, the Chicago Zoological Society, Mote Marine Lab, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the University of Florida.
According to Desmond, “the boats got into the water from the 951 ramp at about 9:00 in the morning. James and I were on The Dolphin Explorer that day and explained to everyone that it would be more of a dolphin rescue versus our normal tour. Everyone thought it was terrific. At 11:15 AM The Dolphin Explorer was in the entrance to Collier Bay and that’s where we sighted him.”
From there, the rest of the boats made their way to Seymour. “It took 15 seconds to set the net. All of a sudden these boats just whipped around in a circle and then they came to a complete stop and the net formed a perfect circle around him. Within a minute, they were there working on him,” adds Kent.
The fishing line was quickly removed from Seymour’s fluke and his overall health was then assessed. Blood was drawn, a device was placed into his blow hole to check for disease and x-rays were taken to determine bone damage. A monitoring device was attached to his dorsal fin so he can be monitored at all times. Throughout this time, Seymour remained calm.
Kent adds, “when they were working on him they commented that he seemed compromised. That he seemed somewhat malnourished. I’m not talking about a couple of weeks, but it wouldn’t have been too much longer that he would not have survived. So they got him at a good time.”
Thanks to quick work, Seymour was released back into the wild only about three hours after he was caught. So what will happen to Seymour now?
“What’s really interesting is that we are getting GPS plots from his tracking tag. He is now south of here, down by Cape Romano and down into the gulf. All the information we are getting now is through The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, which is a portion of Mote Marine and is funded by the Chicago Zoological Society. Randy Wells, who runs that organization, is the one who put the tag on Seymour, giving us instant results on where he is since he’s been released,” explains Desmond.
Kent continues, “as soon as we get a chance we will make our way over to get a picture of him.”
Students at Crafton Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are eagerly awaiting that photo. Through an interactive learning project designed by members of The Dolphin Explorer, 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade students at the school have been learning about marine life in the Ten Thousand Islands. Through Skype sessions, students see first hand, what those on The Dolphin Explorer get to see. Starting in October of 2011, teacher, Susan Kosko’s students began participating in 80 lessons, all designed in prezi format (a power-point style presentation). The students are not only learning about dolphins but are also being taught about other marine life as well as conservation issues.
Adds Desmond, “Part of this learning program is for the kids to write letters. It gives the children the exercise in writing. So it all ties together. There’s science, technology, geography, reading and language arts. It really has a lot of pieces to it that makes it a full program.”
Kosko has found that her students are really enjoying the program. “Friday, March 9th will be one that my students and I will remember for a lifetime,” she explains. “At approximately 11:50 a.m. I received the call from Captain Chris that Seymour was found and there would be a Skype call in 5 minutes! I started my videotaping as one of my colleagues, Lorraine Becker, ran to round up the students. Many of which were either in lunch or recess. They ran into the rooms with lunches in hand or coats. Their expressions were priceless. The announcement made us feel like it was Christmas morning.
“As James continued to call us throughout the day he did a spectacular job of providing us a play by play regarding what was unfolding. My students were asked to use as many of their senses to document what was unfolding when viewing the rescue. Worksheets were ready for them to jot down their ideas and thoughts about what they could see, hear and how they were feeling. Some of the students jotted down: ‘ecstatic’ and ‘amazed’ and ‘glad to see that Seymour will be alright.’”
Her students are doing much more than writing about their love for Seymour. They have been busy raising funds for his rescue since they were made aware of his injury and eventual rescue. So far they have held a cookie dough fundraiser, a book drive at a local Barnes and Noble and are participating in a collaboration effort with a local Pizza Hut. Also, “Jonathan Auxier, author of ‘Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes,’ will be visiting our students for an assembly. Any book orders will earn us a 20% profit, adds Kosko. A hoagie fundraiser is also in the works.
“The fundraising, we’ve decided, will go to the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program to help pay for the tracking of Seymour,” explains Desmond.
Kosko describes what Seymour’s story has done for her students, “The Dolphin Explorer team spent endless hours tracking Seymour and providing us with updates as to the progress of the pending rescue. Their willingness to allow us to be so close to the rescue as it was unfolding, is priceless. I could never repay them for that kindness and consideration. From the onset of this project they have made my students feel as though they were an integral part of the process. They have taught my students on so many levels. Not only have they taught these children about their responsibilities to dolphins, but they are truly teaching them the impact you can have from working towards a common goal.”
Kent Morse adds to the idea of working towards a common goal, “it’s really great to have a rescue operation, but it would really be great if there was an ethic on this island among boaters to really not feed dolphins. The worst thing is to feed them because this causes lots of things to happen. They start hanging out and shadowing fishing boats which causes a greater opportunity for them to become tangled in the lines. From other studies we’ve seen that they lose the ability to feed themselves and the calves they raise lose the ability. Then we lose the ability to observe wild dolphins.”
Hopefully, readers will continue to be aware of how their actions can affect our local dolphin population. Learn more about living safely with dolphins through NOAA’s Dolphin SMART program at www.dolphinsmart.org. To report any entangled, injured or stranded marine mammal please call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s toll free hotline, 1-888-404-FWCC.