- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

OCEAN CITY, Md.

‘C Nome on, baby. Come out and show yourself,” urges Jose Barrios, his field glasses focused on a blue-black blur in the waves off then 67th Street beach in Ocean City.

“They’re close in between 10 and 11 o’clock,” says Mr. Barrios, who is conservation program manager at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. “When you see two fins close together like that, it’s usually a mother with her calf — they have to stay close.”

The pair were two of 66 bottlenose dolphins counted by aquarium staffers and volunteers from a helicopter, two boats and 10 sites along 13 miles of Maryland’s Atlantic coastline from Assateague Island to the Delaware line between 9 a.m. and noon on a steamy, overcast day two weeks ago.

Why a dolphin count? The informal census serves as a snapshot of the health of the dolphin population and the waters where they live, Mr. Barrios explains.

“Dolphins are top predators — they give a good idea of the health of the food chain below them,” he says. “Back in 1987 and 1988, there was a big, mass die-off — 50 or 60 percent of the dolphins in the area died. We’re not sure why, but it was probably due to pollution that came from the food chain — a red tide.

“We knew we needed to do something,” he says.

Waiting for Flipper

The aquarium, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next month and last December completed a multimillion-dollar expansion program, keeps 10,500 specimens and more than 560 species of animals at its home at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

The annual dolphin count is just one of its dolphin-centered programs. A daily show of the aquarium’s bottlenose dolphins in the Dolphin Amphitheater explores how the animals play. At other times, visitors can take behind-the-scenes tours of the marine-mammal area or meet trainers and dolphins for a close-up look at a dolphin’s day. A Junior Scientist Program tells youngsters all they ever wanted to know about dolphins.

Here in Ocean City, though, the long wait for the animals has just begun. The small group of dolphin counters, clad in bright blue National Aquarium shirts and armed with clipboards, binoculars and cell phones, stand out among sand-castle builders, shell seekers and boogie-board riders on the broad beach in front of a pink-and-white Holiday Inn.

Among them are aquarium interns Whitney Dyson, 18, of Baltimore and Jhamyllia Price, 21, of Columbia, and Jennifer Ditmar, the aquarium’s acting stranding coordinator.

Yes, stranding coordinator: Ms. Ditmar’s principal job is to orchestrate the rescue of stranded marine animals, such as dolphins, sea turtles, manatees and seals.

“We’ve had no live bottlenose dolphin strandings this year,” she says, referring to Tursiops truncates, the “Flipper” look-alikes that ply Middle Atlantic ocean waters during the summer.

“Bottlenose dolphins are migratory. They come here about May, when the water gets to about 60 degrees, and they go about as far north as New York. When the water gets colder, they return south.”

The marine mammals come close to shore to eat.

“They come in as far as the food comes in,” Ms. Ditmar explains. Dolphins eat a variety of fish and some squid, and they find their prey using sonar, or echolocation. They send out sound waves, and when a sound wave hits a fish, it bounces back and tells the dolphin where dinner is.

Life in the pod

Although fish are the primary draw, dolphins also are curious about the two-legged critters that hang around the water’s edge.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say they like us, but they’re curious about us,” Ms. Ditmar says. “And being a curious species ourselves, we’re drawn to them.”

Dolphins live as long as 30 years — you can count the rings in an animal’s teeth to determine its age — and travel in sex-segregated groups called pods.

“They only come together to mate,” Ms. Ditmar says, adding that they mate often and frequently change partners. When they’re not engaged in mating, however, they stay with their own sex. Bachelor groups consist of two or three males, while “nursery groups” are made up of 10 to 12 mothers and babies plus assorted aunts and grandmothers.

Dolphins nurse their young for at least a year. Males wander off and form bachelor groups when they’re 3 or 4 years old, but females usually stay with the maternal pod.

“So if you see a larger pod, it’s likely to be females with calves,” says Marjorie Bollinger, who does outreach education for the aquarium.

“We saw two. They were probably males, just kind of cruising,” Whitney Dyson reports.

‘Footprints’ in the waves

As the noon deadline approaches, reports filter in by cell phone or are brought in person by volunteers from the various stations.

“I got 25,” reports Polly Yanick, a member of the aquarium’s conservation team who worked the station at 140th Street. “The first group was really in close, in the breakers. As the fog burned off, they moved farther out. A kid on the beach pointed out three young males. ‘Are those sharks or dolphins?’ he asked. ‘My mind tells me they’re sharks, and my mind is never wrong.’ ”

However, they were dolphins, and Ms. Yanick included them in her tally. An astute dolphin-spotter, she has participated in the annual count for 15 years and delights in pointing out the playful mammals to newcomers.

“Look where that set of waves is breaking, about 50 yards offshore,” she instructs. “Waves normally come in sets of threes,” she explains. “You need to look in the troughs between the waves for a footprint that shouldn’t be there.”

“About 9:45, I saw probably two males,” reports veteran volunteer Wilson Russell, who watched the water from the beach at 101st Street. “Then a large pod came by about 11:40, six or eight surfacing together, probably females and calves.”

“We saw 13 total,” says intern Kera Mather, a 22-year-old Hampton University student who decided to become a marine-animal veterinarian after she helped rescue and rehabilitate a sea turtle with a fish hook in its esophagus. “There were three groups, just traveling.”

Traveling, sometimes called “porpoising,” describes the most commonly observed dolphin behavior — swimming parallel to the shore alternately above and below the surface of the water.

Other common behaviors include surfing (playing in the waves just for fun), breaching (jumping up out of the water), chuffing (exhaling in a forceful way that may be a warning to people or animals) and logging (floating just beneath the surface to save energy).

The numbers

With the counting deadline past, Jaya Kannan, a 20-year-old intern from Bethesda, sets up a laptop computer on a blanket and begins plugging in numbers.

“Fred in Assateague saw five,” another volunteer manning a cell phone tells her. Ten dolphins were spotted from the helicopter, while the Coast Guard boat reported only one. The other boat had no sightings.

“I’m going to go ahead and make a graph,” Ms. Kannan says, shielding her eyes from the glare to view the computer screen and plotting the numbers seen at each of the various counting locations.

When the numbers are plugged in and corrected to eliminate double-counting, the grand total is 66 — less than half last year’s count of 159. The aquarium experts caution against drawing any dire conclusions from these data.

“Previous counts were higher, but today the water is cooler, and it’s cloudier, and we have fewer staff,” Ms. Kannan says. “And it’s not a scientifically controlled study.”

“Each year’s information is like a snapshot,” says education specialist Eve Stelzer. “Maybe we were just not in the same place as the dolphins. The fact that the count is down from last year may be due to human error.”

The exact number of dolphins that swim along the Atlantic coast is unknown, and the data from this count — along with similar tallies from other coastal states — will be sent to federal authorities and monitored over time. The aquarium’s annual count also had another purpose, though: to connect the public with the creatures that call the ocean home.

“A lot of people come to the beach but don’t really think about the creatures that are living in the ocean,” says conservation specialist Laura Bankey.

“We want to show them that dolphins and other creatures live here and that we have to protect them.”

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