Bottlenoses in the Bay

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By Sara Hall | NB Indy


Newport Beach residents may have noticed more dolphins close to the coast in the last few years, a few have even ventured into the bay.

“After 30 plus years of studying them, they’re now coming into the harbors, into the bay,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the Coastal Dolphin Survey Project at Orange Coast College.

The specific goal of the program is to research the population, biology and ecology of the bottlenose dolphins that live along the coast of Orange County, Kelly said. The project is specifically studying coastal, residential bottlenose dolphins.

“They are resident to this coastline,” Kelly said. “On any day of the week they can be seen off of Newport Beach.”

There is a population that lives right along the coast of Southern California, Kelly said, usually within a mile of shore, between Monterey and Mexico.

More recently, dolphins have been spotted in Corona del Mar and the Crystal Cove area, said Randy Seton, who has been involved with the research program since it began gathering information in 1978.

During the last seven or eight years there have been more firsthand accounts of close to shore or in-bay sightings, Seton said.

Another of the primary goals of the survey project is to determine why dolphins are regularly entering Newport Harbor now and not in the past.

Seton said residents that spot a dolphin are urged to report it to the project team. There is a protocol of what to report, Seton said, like what the weather is like, the tide, location, group or pair and other details.

Photos are helpful too. Dolphins’ dorsal fins are like fingerprints, Kelly said, and a photo can identify a specific dolphin which can help the research team track them.

There are several “citizen sighters” in Newport Beach, Kelly said. Sightings are immediately logged and studied to find out if that specific dolphin has been seen before and if there are any patterns.

“It’s really amazing to watch,” said Seton, who has captured many photos of them. “You never know where (or when) they are going to pop up.”

People get concerned that they get trapped, Seton said, but they know their way in and out.

A real concern would be the urban runoff and toxic sediments in the water.

In 2004, two dolphins took up residence in Upper Newport Bay, a mother and a young male, Kelly said. This was the first time an event like this had been recorded. Kelly and the research team began monitoring them and their lives in the bay.

The pair died within a few months of moving in, Seton said. A necropsy (an autopsy on an animal) showed toxins in their tissue that were contributing factors in their deaths, Kelly said. But, Seton said, the toxins could have come from inside or outside the bay.

A lot of it has to do with water quality, said Seton, who is involved with water quality and a member of the Coastal/Bay Water Quality Citizens Advisory Committee. All the trash, pollutants and sediment get washed down into the bay by all the creeks that drain the watershed.

“It’s the fine microscopic sediments that cloud the water (and) carry the toxins,” Seton said.

All of that gets concentrated in the bay, he added, the dredging has helped but new sediment settles in the bay all the time.

Even when it’s not raining, Seton said, there is still runoff that reaches the bay.

“Even on a nice sunny day, water is running,” Seton said, and it’s carrying urban runoff.

The fish swim and eat in that water and then the dolphins eat those fish, Seton explained.

“I kind of connect the dots, as a water quality person,” Seton said. “It (may be) safe to swim in (as a human), but is it safe to swim in if you’re a fish?”

The latest study from the Southern California Coastal Water Research Program, a local water quality group, last year showed toxins in mullet and anchovies in the Upper Bay that exceeded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits, Seton said.

“It’s like we flushed a gigantic toilet into their home,” Kelly said. “If we want healthy fish, if we want healthy dolphins, we need to cleanup our runoff.”

In the 1980s, a large population of dolphins on the East Coast died, for unknown reasons, one theory being that toxins were in the fish they ate and made them susceptible to infections.

“That is my nightmare,” Kelly said.

Bottlenose dolphins were seen in the bay again in 2007 and the research team started to track their movement to try to determine the possible long-term effects on the coastal dolphin population if they feed primarily on fish in the bay and/or took up residence in the bay.

Part of the study is to try and determine whether it is the same group of dolphins coming into the bay or just random dolphins out of the thousands off the coast, Kelly said.

If just a few specific groups are coming in, then just a few have been exposed to the pollutants in the bay, Kelly said.

Another part of the research is to find out how are they are interacting with the environment and vice versa, said Kelly.

“And how we are affecting them,” he added.

They also studied how dolphins act at night, Kelly said.

“They act exactly the same,” he said, probably because of their sonar, he added.

The project has also had some notable findings.

“We were the first ones to publish a paper that said we saw a dolphin give birth in the wild,” Kelly said, which is pretty exciting for the team.

They observed a group of dolphins get in a circle and a pregnant mother give birth in the middle. What they noticed, Kelly said, was nursery-like behavior: older females acting almost like midwives. These groups tend to be groups of females, grandmothers, mothers and daughters, Kelly said, as well as young males. The birthing circle has been see elsewhere, but the OCC project was the first to document it, Kelly said.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Seton said.

The entire project is ongoing and gets students from the college involved with hands-on tasks.

Kelly said it hasn’t been easy to keep the research going because the project is funded all out of pocket with a few donations by individuals. And the students all volunteer their time, he said.

For “citizen sighters,” Kelly said people should not try to approach the dolphins, pet them or feed them.

The most important thing is public awareness, Seton said, and getting the community involved with the dolphin research program.

“This is where you live,” Seton said. Residents “need to know the dynamics of the bay.”

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