Citizens Do Their Dolphin Duty

Volunteers help scientists count and catalog bottlenose dolphins off Georgia's Atlantic coast. MARINE STUDIES

`DOLPHINS at 12 o'clock,'' calls skipper Ed Flinn as he guides his boat along the mouth of the Savannah River near Savannah, Ga. ``There's three or four just 20 feet ahead of us.'' The crew scrambles to the bow as the the small pod, or group, of dolphins swims along the water's surface. ``Listen,'' says Gwen Flinn, the skipper's wife, as she quickly focuses her camera, ``You can hear them chuffing and squeaking. They're puffing through their blowholes.''

``Dolphins at 3 o'clock,'' yells Dawn Averitt, a student at Georgia State University. The crew members quickly turn their heads to watch another group of dolphins perform their acrobatic feats, and Dawn begins to record the latitude and longitude, approximate water temperature, number of adults and calves, and any unusual behavior.

Pausing to watch the playful mammals' antics, she says, ``See that one with the white face - he's looking right at us and smiling. He's just as curious about us as we are about him.''

Pointing to the second pod sighted, Debbie Snider, a hairdresser from Savannah, excitedly asks, ``Is that a mother and her calf? And look, there's one with a clipped dorsal fin - he must have gotten caught in a net or something.''

The Flinns and their crew are part of an Atlanta-based citizens group working to help scientists and government officials count and catalog Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. They participated recently in the second survey effort, which extended over a 390-square-mile area along the Georgia coast. Like the 200 other volunteers involved in the weekend survey, they scanned the area, including nearby tidal rivers, bays, and creeks for signs of approaching dolphins.

The Dolphin Project, a nonprofit organization made up of close to 300 citizens, has embarked on a 10-year research study to gauge the effects of the 1987-88 epidemic that killed off an estimated 50 percent of the dolphin population along the Atlantic coast.

The project's advisers believe that they can learn more about the overall marine environment by observing the recovery of these intelligent creatures.

Charles W. Potter of the Smithsonian's Marine Mammal Program and the chairman of the board of scientific advisers for the project, says, ``We found massive amounts of pollutants in their systems when we examined dead dolphins. Since dolphins are at the top of the food chain, their food source is the same as ours. We ingest many of the same pollutants and toxins they ingest every time we eat sea trout, mullet, or croaker.''

While dolphins are not threatened with extinction, surveyors hope to monitor the expected recovery of the dolphins from the ``die-off,'' and if necessary call for government intervention and stricter protection of dolphins and coastal areas.

Volunteers, who will participate in four surveys each year, are working closely with Mr. Potter and several other scientists and advisers. Since the project is still in its early stages and so little is known about dolphins' behavior in their natural habitat, volunteers are trying to collect as much data as possible.

Beau Cutts, the president of the group and a journalism professor at Georgia State University, says, ``One of the payoffs [of the project] is that we can observe seasonal changes and migration patterns to get some meaningful data.''

Potter adds, ``I think the concept of a volunteer group composed of enthusiasts working in conjunction with professional dolphin researchers is an excellent way to provide the general public with a feeling for the animals and their role in the environment.''

Volunteers range in age from the late teens to retirement age and come from all over the Southeast. Though most work full time in a variety of jobs ranging from computer programmer to psychotherapist, they share a particular affection or concern for dolphins and a desire to get involved in a hands-on effort.

Pat Cote, the group's vice president and a senior data system consultant in Atlanta, says, ``I've done a lot of volunteer work in the past 10 years, but with this project I have a real chance to accomplish something and do more than just write a check.''

While the project is less than a year old, it's the most comprehensive long-term study of dolphins anywhere in the world because of the large geographical area surveyed and the extended time period. Mr. Cutts is confident that volunteers can cover the whole Georgia coast in the next few years. He knows of two smaller groups doing surveys in North Carolina and says that he's had inquiries about starting a similar group in Florida. He hopes a volunteer network can be organized within the next year or so.

According to Gerald Scott of the Miami laboratory of the National Marine and Fisheries Service, if the dolphin project is successful in Georgia, it will become a model for projects in other states.

During the first survey last July, 30 teams of volunteers sighted 1,374 dolphins. In mid-October, volunteers sighted only 559 dolphins, even though record-keeping procedures had been refined. Cutts says, ``The lower number could have multiple causes, including the falling tides on Sunday [on the second-survey day in October], migration patterns, and the change of seasons.''

Jill McKenzie, a criminal justice major at Georgia State University who participated in both surveys, was on one of the teams that didn't sight any dolphins. She says, ``We were disappointed, but we can learn just as much from what we don't see as what we do see. Hopefully, as the survey continues, we'll know why we didn't see any.''

While the data collected from the first two surveys is still being compiled, Cutts says, ``The results of the survey will have significance beyond Georgia, particularly in terms of long-term patterns of migration and reproduction and any signs of disease.''

Volunteers pay $25 annual dues, a $72 survey registration fee, and their own travel expenses to Savannah for the weekend surveys. They also help pay for the fuel for the small boats and vessels.

Cutts estimates that each survey costs between $12,000 and $14,000, but he quickly notes that if the government attempted a similar effort it would likely cost close to $130,000. The federal government did provide some technical advice in helping the group collect data and also provided nautical charts. Cutts hopes to get some federal and state funding as well as grant money in the next year.

Along with surveying and photographing the dolphins for their catalog, the project volunteers are also educating other citizens about the man-made and natural problems threatening these benign creatures.

Along with other environmental groups, the Dolphin Project has endorsed a resolution introduced by Rep. Barbara Boxer (D) of California. The resolution, the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act, deals with the slaughter of dolphins by tuna fishermen and requires that all tuna be labeled according to the type of technique used to capture them.

The Dolphin Project is also asking consumers not to buy any yellow-fin canned tuna, but to instead buy white albacore tuna. (The albacore tuna is caught with a hook and line rather than in purse nets.)

Cutts sums up the project: ``Ordinary people can make a difference - we don't have to wait for the government or big business to act.''

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