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All is not well along our coast
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As we view our beautiful Georgia coast, all is not well in our Garden of Eden.
Dr. Tara Cox, Ph.D., is a marine science professor at Savannah State University. She recently provided a very informative and interesting program at the Jepson Center about one of the research projects conducted by her students involving the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.
Dr. Cox’s lecture included some very disturbing facts about our coastal waters. In listening to her comments, I was also reminded of the fact that the Savannah River is the fourth most polluted river in the United States. I was reminded that the waters in the Brunswick-Sapelo Island area have the highest PCB levels of any waters in the United States.
I was reminded of the fact that the Ogeechee River has, by definition of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, twice the levels of mercury in it as is deemed marginally safe.
I was reminded of the continuing threat of ill-designed and/or antiquated wastewater treatment plants, as well as industrial and chemical operations along our coast. They are going unchecked and are constantly breaking the rules with illegal discharge into our air and water. I was reminded that the threat of adding pollution to our waters does not hinder the broadcasting of political fodder. Perhaps we need an “Environmental Tea Party.”
The two subjects, pollution and dolphins, are more often than not addressed on the same page or in the same breath. The dolphin is a sentinel species. When it comes to warning flags, they are the marine environment’s equivalent to the canary in the coal mine.
Dolphins and humans are mammals. When a dolphin shows signs of illness, we must take heed because we are susceptible to many of those same illnesses. When a dolphin is ill, the health of the waters the dolphin lives in becomes suspect. It’s the same water in which we play and catch our seafood.
Dolphins in the Brunswick area have been diagnosed with horrendous skin problems, some of them cancers. They have been found to have higher concentrations of PCBs and other dangerous chemical elements than any other dolphins in the world.
Dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon, a body of water that takes up about 300 miles of Florida’s east coast, have been diagnosed with the marine equivalent to leprosy. They also carry very transmittable diseases like genital herpes. Think about that the next time you decide to feed them, pet them or swim with them.
The law demands that observing dolphin in the wild must be done from a minimum of 50 yards, half the length of a football field. How do you do that in a creek 20 feet wide? You slow or stop your engine and let them pass. You never run between two dolphins. You could be separating the mother and her calf. Their hearing is extremely sensitive so your engine noise can confuse and disorient them, particularly the younger ones.
Too many people who live here, or have access to the waters here, are feeding our dolphins. Most people don’t do it to be malicious. Most people simply don’t know any better. It’s like people releasing balloons to celebrate or memorialize events. They obviously have no idea that they are very possibly signing the death warrant of any number of marine animals and birds.
Much of what we do not properly dispose of ends up in our waters. The end result can be deadly entanglements, choking obstructions of the throat and bowels – leading to the slow painful demise of shore birds and marine animals.
If you feed a dolphin, that animal will come to expect it from others. They will go to boats looking for handouts. They become susceptible to death-dealing boat and propeller strikes. Dolphins are identified by markings on their dorsal fins or other scarring. All too often those markings are the result of too close an encounter with their worst enemy – humans.
Feeding dolphins alters their natural behavior. They are wild animals and should be respected as such. If a female dolphin is fed by humans, she will teach her young how to beg for food, too. At the same time she will neglect to teach them how to forage naturally. Dolphins need fresh water just like we do. They get that water from the meat of the live fish they consume. When they are fed dead fish, frozen bait, trash and dangerous combinations of garbage, it can spell their early demise. The immune system of dolphin can be compromised by the fact that we are dumping millions of gallons of sewage, treated and otherwise into our waterways. This treated sewage is loaded with antibiotics and hormones that no sewage treatment plant can eliminate.
In her dissertation, Dr. Cox showed slides of a 3-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin named “Fall” and his mother named “Spring.” Spring is a habitual beggar in the vicinity of Lazaretta Creek. She taught Fall to do the same. At the age of 3, Fall was weaned and on his own. Shortly thereafter Spring was seen with a new calf. A short time later, Fall was found dead.
Fall had suffered numerous broken bones and was full of infection. He was also emaciated. Dolphin in the wild can be expected to live 50 years. Fall only lived to be 3 years of age.
A necropsy was performed, but a specific cause of death for young Fall could not be determined from a scientific standpoint. I’m not a scientist, but I can speculate what happened to Fall. Perhaps the broken bones came from one or more boat strikes. The infections may have come from his interaction with humans. His emaciation possibly resulted from the fact that he was never taught how to forage naturally by his mother.
Begging dolphins fight for the food scraps being thrown to them. A small 3-year-old isn’t going to win that battle.
So do you still think it’s fun to feed a dolphin?

Hubbard is a charter boat captain on an environmental tour boat in South Bryan.

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