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Dolphin spotting

The Dolphin Project marks 25 years of care for our marine mammal cousins

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They call her Wilma, because she was found and rescued in Wilmington River.

She was spotted first in the Savannah area in 2006 with something around her throat, but disappeared before rescuers could help. Over a year later on a hot summer day in July, she was spotted again, still recognizable by the same object around her throat.

Peach Hubbard, president of The Dolphin Project (TDP) organization, her husband, and two others were sent to keep track of Wilma until other boats with researchers and equipment could arrive to help with the rescue.

“She swam through a rubber loop, which I believe was a gasket from a boat window,” recalls Hubbard. “She had it on her well over a year and it was embedded in her throat.”

Once the rescue boat arrived, they were able to capture her, cut off the rubber loop, and examine and clean the wounds. The researchers were able to determine her gender, how old she was, and discovered that, luckily, the rubber loop hadn’t damaged any vital organs and they released Wilma back into the water.

Today, TDP along with Savannah State’s Marine Biology Department still keep an eye on Wilma, who is no longer recognizable by a rubber loop around her throat but by an unquestionable scar.

Rescuing bottlenose dolphins and educating folks on the misconceptions we have about them and the dangers of treating them as pets, however, aren’t the only things that The Dolphin Project strives to do.

This month The Dolphin Project is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and TDP has spent all of that quarter century building a database of information on Bottlenose dolphins through field research surveys.

It began in 1989 with the first dolphin survey, but you could say it truly began in 1987 with the massive die-off of an estimated 50 percent of Bottlenose dolphins along the eastern coast from a mysterious virus.

Beau Cutts, TDP’s founder, was eager to start a project to learn more about the massive die-off of these mammals. The first of what became ongoing surveys was planned.

A skipper, a team leader, a team leader assistant, and a photographer. They are all volunteers, they are all trained, and they are the four essential people who make up a basic survey team for TDP. One Saturday out of every month from January to November, these survey teams work together on boats to conduct field research on Bottlenose dolphins on the 110-mile seaboard of Hilton Head, S.C., along the Georgia coast to Florida.

“We are keeping track of their numbers,” says Hubbard of the monthly surveys. “If their numbers go down, we have a problem. It tells us that there is something wrong with their environment and we share their environment.”

In addition to counting the dolphins, the survey team’s job consist of observing the dolphin’s behavioral patterns and taking a photo of its dorsal fin, which identifies a dolphin much like a fingerprint identifies a human.

The data collected from these surveys goes into two databases accessible to marine scientists around the world at Duke University: Mid-Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Catalog (MABDC) and Ocean Biogeographic Information System-Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Populations (OBIS-SEAMAP).

“Right now our data is involved in a study with Duke University and it’s turned out that dolphins that we spotted back in the early 1990s were also being spotted by Savannah State’s Marine Biology Department just a few years ago,” says Hubbard. “They are still alive and that’s encouraging considering how polluted the waters are and the abuse that they go through.”

The information that has been collected over the years through TDP’s surveys has also allowed for the recognition of patterns and behaviors. The mysterious virus that caused the major die-off that motivated the start of TDP has been causing problems again since spring of last year.

Now with the funding and newer technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is studying the virus to try and determine where the virus came from.

TDP’s next dolphin survey is taking place Saturday, July 19, and while volunteers must go through training before participating, Hubbard says you don’t need to be a marine scientist to do it.

“It’s a unique opportunity for people to get out on the water and do something that is beneficial to the planet and to ourselves,” explains Hubbard.

Following Saturday’s survey will be a 25th anniversary celebration, open to the public, at JF Gregory Park Pavilion in Richmond Hill at 6 p.m. Staying true to the South, the celebration will include a Lowcountry boil, local BBQ, iced tea, beer, wine donated by The Georgia Winery, and live music. There will also be a silent auction with items including artwork by local artists, gift cards —and oh yeah, seven nights for four in Tuscany, Italy.

What Hubbard tells me was originally a ten-year project has now become the longest running all volunteer group with its program and Hubbard explains they have plans to educate even further: “We want to add salinity testing to our surveys and we would love to recruit more people up and down the coast of Georgia.”

The biggest project, however, is seeking funding to publish a book about local dolphins that will be paired with an educational DVD. “It will be part of an educational outreach project that will go to every middle school in Georgia and South Carolina which will teach kids about dolphin research, and it will have geography problems, math problems, science projects, and that kind of thing.”

With the outline of the book finished and having already been reviewed by scientists, all that is needed is funding to get the project rolling.

“The Dolphin Project starts with the dolphin because they are the sentinel species of their environment,” says Hubbard. “Everything we are doing comes back to making a better environment for ourselves too.”

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