Tampa Bay area scientists are seeing an interesting and cute trend. There’s a local dolphin baby boom!
It’s got the attention of scientists from around the world.
A News Channel 8 crew tagged along with scientists on a boat in Sarasota Bay. The scientists were with the Chicago Zoological Society’s Dolphin Research Program, which is done in collaboration with Mote Marine Laboratory.
It was a beautiful day, but it wasn’t necessarily an ideal day. It was windy and the water was not very clear.
“I think its right over here,” said program director Dr. Randy Wells.
The scientists kept their eyes glued to the water. One was even using binoculars.
Suddenly we spotted one! A dolphin!
It quickly emerged from the water and then returned all within a few seconds. That was all the researchers needed. It was F-247.
“6-year-old female,” said one researcher.
They do these surveys to keep track of the local dolphin population.
“From the nicks and notches on the dorsal fin, we can identify the different individuals, sort of like a fingerprint for humans,” said lab manager Jason Allen.
For these scientists, it’s like finding old friends.
“You get to know them pretty well and you get to care about them a lot, especially when you see the dramas that they go through in their lives,” said Dr. Wells.
These dolphins and their families have been spotted in the same areas since 1970.
During these surveys, the researchers can easily tell them apart and know them by name.
Most go by numerical designations, but some have had names like “Beggar” and “Pup.”
“We name everybody. Sometimes it’s not a very clever name,” said Dr. Wells.
There are around 170 dolphins in and around Sarasota Bay. It was these dolphins and their descendants who have taught scientists around the world about how dolphin communities work.
“They live here year round. They live here year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation,” said Dr. Wells. “They’ve become familiar with the resources, where the resources are sufficient to support them and where they are familiar with the social structure they’ve grown up in.”
The population is growing. In the past few years, these scientists have noticed a baby boom.
Last year, they saw 21 new calves. That’s nearly double the average.
“In all the years that I’ve been here, I’ve never seen that many,” said Dr. Wells.
The calves are easy to spot.
“When they’re first born, they’re sort of quirking and popping out of the water, and don’t swim very well yet, which is why it’s important to give them space,” explained Allen.
Over the past decade, these dolphins have gone through deadly cold snaps and dangerous red tide blooms, which has badly hurt the population.
But this new baby boom is a good sign for all of us who enjoy these waters.
“The dolphins of Sarasota Bay are really good indicators of the health of our ecosystem,” said Dr. Wells.
Dolphins are like the thermometer for the waters. If they start suffering, it’s a sign that the environment is in trouble.
“These are large mammals like us. They’re top predators. They breathe the same air we breathe, swim in the same waters, eat the same fish we catch, but they do all of that a little bit more than we do,” said Dr. Wells.
Thankfully, this baby boom shows their food supply, fish, are becoming abundant. The waters are safe, and people are interfering less with these creatures.
“It really establishes the gold standard,” said Dr. Wells. “If there are pollutants in the water, it begins to affect the animals in a very negative way. We’ll be able to detect that through health assessments that we do in addition to the population monitoring.”
Case in point, the 2010 oil spill. Even now, years later, dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico are still experiencing severe health problems and birth declines.
That was determined by comparing them to Sarasota dolphins. As a result, efforts are now underway to help restore the population.
Dolphins are more than pretty look at, we have a responsibility to care for them.
“They are our neighbors and they’ve been here longer than most of us have been,” said Dr. Wells.
We humans and these dolphins are all in this together.
“If these dolphins are not able to survive in the conditions in the bay, it’s not something we’re gonna enjoy and it may not be something we can survive for very long either,” said Dr. Wells.
Scientists say we need to do our part and help these dolphins thrive.
It’s vital that you don’t throw trash in the water and most importantly, do not feed the dolphins. This will make the dolphins dependent on humans, and they can be at risk for sickness or boat strikes.