Among the first dolphins we recorded after launching The Dolphin Study on a cool January day in 2006 were a mother and calf we eventually named Halfway and Seymour. We had started the study because we were curious about the dolphins in our area – how many were there? How far did they travel? When were their calves born? In time we would learn all of this and more.
But the most profound revelation occurred the moment we photographed Halfway and Seymour’s dorsal fins and assigned them a name. In an instant our perception these animals changed. They stopped being generic representatives of their species and became, instead, individuals.
In the years since we have logged over 1500 sightings of Halfway, recorded 6 of her births and come to recognize her not just as an individual with her own story but also as a member of a complex thriving community.
In 2013 while conducting surveys we came across our old friend Seymour, now a young sub-adult dolphin on his own. Seymour was acting oddly, repeatedly slapping his tail on the surface of the water.
When we finally captured a picture, the problem became obvious. Fishing line was wrapped around his tail so tightly that it had become deeply embedded and scar tissue was building up around the wound.
We reported the injury to NOAA NMFS. By examining the photo we provided they were able to determine that the entanglement was life threatening and authorized an intervention. Eventually Seymour was captured and after veterinarians had worked on him for over an hour the line was removed and Seymour was treated with an antibiotic and released.
It was gratifying to play a small part in the rescue of Halfway’s former calf but the intervention, harrowing and stressful for Seymour, was expensive and logistically difficult for the stranding network. Unfortunately, it was not an isolated incident. In 2009 we noticed a metal fishing leader attached to the tail of another of Halfway’s offspring – her two-year-old calf Skipper. Once again the stranding network carried out an arduous, expensive intervention to save her life.
In 2012 one of Halfway’s grandchildren was seen trailing a tangle of fishing line. Eventually she freed herself of the line on her own but not before it cut deep grooves in her dorsal fin.
During this time when so many of Halfway’s offspring experienced life-threatening entanglements in fishing line, several other dolphins in Southwest Florida suffered ghastly injuries and deaths from boat strikes. One dolphin was intentionally murdered.
A series of red tide (karenia brevis) blooms plagued the southwest gulf coast and corresponded to a record number of dolphin strandings between 2018 and 2020 leading NOAA to declare an Unusual Mortality Event.
Elsewhere in Florida dolphins were experiencing impacts of the climate crisis with many covered in lesions from contact with fresh water spilling into the Gulf.
We came to recognize that human behavior was piling threat upon threat to the survival of our dolphin neighbors. Costly and logistically difficult interventions by dedicated group of volunteers to save individual dolphins would not be enough to ensure that they would continue to thrive. All of us would need to alter our behavior.
In 2020 we established The Dolphin Study a 501(c)(3) nonprofit devoted to introducing others to the local bottlenose dolphin community we have come to know and enlisting their support in encouraging choices that will help ensure these magnificent animals will continue to thrive alongside us.
Born of curiosity, The Dolphin Study maintains a database documenting the local dolphin communities and makes this information freely available. In doing so we hope everyone – scientists, resource managers and the interested public can experience our path from curiosity about the dolphins in our midst to awareness of the challenges they face and finally commitment to altering our behavior so these neighbors of ours can thrive alongside us.