Nic Mader has one of the coolest jobs in the world, and one of great importance to our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. She volunteers for the Dolphin Ecology Project in conjunction with Harbor Branch’s photo ID program. She photographs the dorsal fins of all dolphins in our area. When one looks closely, each dorsal fin is unique.
Generally speaking, the IRL bottle-nosed dolphins are “site specific,” they have a “territory.” Even during crisis, like heavy rains causing polluted discharges and toxic algae blooms in our river from our local canals and Lake Okeechobee, the dolphins remain in our area within a range of about thirty miles. Nic photographs these dolphins and knows them by name. Her newest dolphin is a baby named “Clover.” The mother’s name is Shamrock. Baby Clover will stay aside Shamrock and accompanying group females for up to three years.
Clover is the newest documented member of the group/family of dolphins that live in the “southern lagoon,”which includes the southern IRL and St Lucie River. There are are other groups in the central and northern lagoon as well, all the way up to Volusia County. Sometimes these different groups interact but not too often.
Also, very rarely would one go into the Atlantic ocean through an inlet or a larger oceanic dolphin come inside. The dolphins of the SLR/IRL feel protected here. The entire 156 mile lagoon has about 800-1000 dolphins. Just over a hundred live in the southern area full time.
Even though the lagoon provides protection, there are numerous threats to Clover and her friends and family.
1. Boat hits: More dolphins are struck by boat hits in the southern IRL than any other part of the lagoon and unfortunately Clover’s mother Shamrock is raising the calf in the Crossroads area, the busiest boat traffic area in Martin County. Fishing is good in this area so Clover is being taught to fish, like her pod, in these dangerous waters. (FAU/Harbor Branch Dolphin Health and Boat Hits: (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/marine_mammals/pbbe_lab.php)
2. Toxicity: Harbor Branch has documented that IRL dolphin have the highest levels of mercury in the southeastern US. As much as 14 times higher than “acceptable” by FDEP. In fact, it is well accepted that the first baby dolphin a mother has often dies as mothers offload acquired toxins into the first baby that are stored in the mother’s fat. Just horrific. (Dolphin and Human Mercury IRL, Schafer, HBOI, (http://www.cehaweb.com/documents/2_000.pdf)
3. Fishing line and hooks: Unfortunatley dolphins are so smart it often gets them in trouble like when they try to steal fish off a fisherman’s hook or curiously tamper with crab traps getting the band stuck over their head and neck.
4. Feeding by humans: One of the worst things that can happen to wild dolphins is for people to feed them, as this behavior teaches them not to feed themselves. (PSA,Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjHNXbviACk)
5. Lobomycosis: Lobomycosis is a terrible skin disease only know to affect humans and bottle nosed dolphins. Harbor Branch has documented more lobomycosis in the southern IRL (17%) than anywhere in the entire IRL, west Florida, and SE US. This is linked to polluted fresh water releases. (Abstract “Lobomycosis,” Dr Bossert, Harbor Branch: (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10393-008-0187-8)
6. Chemicals: Unfortunately, septic tanks do not filter drugs that we all take and these drugs, antibiotics, even caffeine, find their way into our rivers accumulating in dolphins. Many are immune to antibiotics in the IRL. (Abstract, Anti-biotics IRL Dolphins, Dr Bossert, Harbor Branch: (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19415386)
7. Morbillavirus: Morbillavirus is like dolphin measles. Presently there is an UME or “unusual mortality event” along the east coast of the US and thousands of dolphins have died. If there were contact between a sick oceanic dolphin and our IRL dolphins, our IRL dolphins could contract the deadly disease. (Abstract, Morbilliavirus IRL dolphins, Dr. Bossert, Harbor Branch: (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378113509005732)
8. Tumors/Papillomaviruses: About 33% of IRL dolphins have been documented to have tumors linked to papillomaviruses. (Abstract, Papillomaviruses IRL Dolphins, Dr Bossert, Harbor Branch: (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378113512003574)
Most IRL dolphins have an average life span of 25 years – and a maximum life span of about 50 years. Dolphins living in the ocean have a longer average life span by about 15 years. Seems it would be the opposite as the lagoon is a “safe haven.” (Sea World, (http://www.animalsnetwork.org/wild-world/zoo-research/indian-river-project/dolphin-56.htm)
Clover, like all new life, has a mountain of obstacles to overcome, but making that even more difficult is that, in today’s world, especially in the St Lucie River/indian River Lagoon, bottle-nosed dolphins’ immune systems are compromised due to poor water quality.
Let’s do what we can to help out. Please slow down if you are in the Crossroads, take the time to look around and see if you can find Clover playing in the waves or learning to hunt. And most important, let’s not accept the above list of 1-8 as “status quo;” let’s fight to give Clover a chance for a long and beautiful life along the Indian River Lagoon.
Dolphin Ecology Project: (http://www.dolphinecology.org/FindOut/index.html)
FAU/Harbor Branch and “Save Wild Dolphin” license plates: (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/)