Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Area Dolphins Take to the World Stage


December 2, 2017: Skipper is doing very well and just turned 4 years old. You can see the marking on her fin where the yellow ID tag used to be. Photos by Bob McConville

December 2, 2017: Skipper is doing very well and just turned 4 years old. You can see the marking on her fin where the yellow ID tag used to be. Photos by Bob McConville

Marine mammals…everybody has heard of them and many area residents are very familiar with some of them. Worldwide they are classified into four groups: Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), Pinnipeds (seals, sea lions and walruses), Sirenians (manatees and dugongs) and Marine Fissipeds (polar bears and sea otters).

There are over 70 species of Cetaceans that spend their entire lives in the water and, locally, we are most familiar with the bottle nosed dolphins. An area survey team, The 10,000 Islands Dolphin Survey Project (better known to residents as The Dolphin Explorer), has been on the Marco Island waters for nearly 12 years recording data about our population and studying their genealogy. In the last six years of that study there have been two successful dolphin rescues in our waters because of the data collection and photographs taken by the team.

Young female Skipper was rescued from a fishing line entanglement in 2014, and the ID tag seen here was placed on her dorsal fin.

Young female Skipper was rescued from a fishing line entanglement in 2014, and the ID tag seen here was placed on her dorsal fin.

Kent Morse, a certified Florida Naturalist and the team leader, has developed continual working relationships with many major agencies on a regional and national level. Close to home that would include Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota and, just up the road, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. On a larger scale, institutions like Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have befriended the local survey team.



The opportunity to share our area information with these agencies would lead to greater rewards regarding the dolphin rescues. Every two years the Society for Marine Mammalogy holds international meetings with the goal of enhancing collaboration, sharing ideas and improving the quality of research on marine mammals within the scientific community. The 22nd Biennial Conference was held in Halifax, Nova Scotia in October.

Dr. Katie McHugh of Mote Marine Laboratory would be a speaker at this event and her topic would be “Post Rescue Sighting Data,” evaluating long-term success of small cetacean interventions in Southwest Florida. This would involve a study involving capture with immediate release.

To obtain as much info as possible Dr. McHugh contacted Kent to submit an account of our area dolphin rescues. The Marco Island studies were being included in a program presented to a worldwide audience.

During her PowerPoint presentation the logos on the screen were Mote Marine, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Princeton University, NOAA Fisheries, Florida Fish and Wildlife, NOAA’s Dept. of Commerce Dolphin Research Project and, for the first time, the 10,000 Island Dolphin Project.

Dr. McHugh’s information was just the first step of her reporting. A formal paper will be submitted in 2018.

Our first rescue involved a sub-adult dolphin named Seymour. This endeavor received so much attention that the ABC TV program “Sea Rescue” aired the story on April 26, 2014. The actual capture and release took place on March 9, 2012. Beginning in December of 2011, Kent and his team noticed an entanglement around this dolphin’s peduncle, the area just above its tail fin. The obstacles restraining Seymour’s movement included fishing line and very thin wire.

Getting to a point of rescue was not just a matter of a single phone call. NOAA’s Marine Mammal Stranding Network was alerted to the severity of the problem. Next a series of sightings within a limited amount of time had to be documented to determine a potential rescue effort. Finally a bevy of personnel from several agencies, many listed above plus more, had to be coordinated for the event.

Finally, on March 9, 2012, the wheels were in motion and the intervention happened. Biologists, veterinarians and other qualified personnel came together for the successful removal of material, the placement of a tracking device and an overall assessment of Seymour’s health. Blood was drawn, the blow hole was checked for disease and x-rays were taken to determine if there was any bone damage. This youngster was released into its home waters with an attached monitor to study its health for six months.

Our second rescue took place with a much younger dolphin in September of 2014, but again involved an entanglement near the tail fin with fishing line that had a steel lead line. A 14-month-old female named Skipper was the victim this time. Once again protocol was followed and a successful intervention was the result. In both cases pictures had to be submitted showing the injury, a veterinarian had to determine that this was a life-threatening event, it had to be a dolphin of residence in our waters, and continued sightings had to be reported for a rescue to even be considered.

In both cases the criteria was met and the dolphins were saved.

The team continues to track the population count of area dolphins. It also notes their movement, distribution, association patterns and behaviors as well as genealogy. Because of the amount of data taken it can be noted that a third generation of dolphins is now apparent. There are three grandmothers in our waters.

The continual dedication of Kent Morse to this program has reaped great rewards for his team. A connection to NOAA’s database FINBASE allows Kent to report the team’s findings to a larger audience. The biggest reward to date…the opportunity to submit information regarding the long-term success of the interventions on a worldwide level.

I am proud to be a member of this team.

Bob is the owner of Stepping Stone Ecotours, conducting walking tours of the western Everglades. He is also a naturalist on board the Dolphin Explorer. His newest pictorial book, “Beneath The Emerald Waves,” a book about dolphins, is available at several locations or at Bob loves his wife very much!

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