Sunday, September 8, 2013



Sabrina Bowen-Stevens photo taken under NOAA permit #14219 issued to T. Cox, SSU Posted: September 5, 2013 - 11:51pm | Updated: September 6, 2013 - 12:04am

By Rich Wittish

Marine sciences researchers at Savannah State University are convinced our area’s estuarine waters are the No. 1 spot in the world for begging by bottlenose dolphins, and that’s not a good thing.

Coastal rivers, sounds and creeks from the Savannah River south to Ossabaw Sound are rife with people feeding dolphins and otherwise luring the animals to their boats, researcher Tara Cox told me recently.

That causes the marine mammals to get in the habit of begging for food, which is a dangerous tendency for both dolphins and humans, said Tara, an associate professor of marine sciences at SSU.

“In the Savannah area, we have the world’s worst begging problem with dolphins,” said Tara, whose research was brought to my attention a few weeks ago while I was writing about the rescue of a dolphin that had become entangled in commercial fishing gear.

“When I came here for an interview,” she said of a visit to SSU in summer 2007, “they took me out on a boat, and dolphins came up to the boat, opening their mouths.

“I was horrified.”

Tara said she was appalled because extreme human interaction with dolphins in the wild “dramatically changes their behavior” by influencing the dolphins to beg for food rather than forage for it.

Feeding dolphins and playing with them also makes them much more susceptible to being struck by boats, she said.

“We had one dolphin mom that persistently begged, and her calf wound up dead on a beach,” said Tara. “The calf had several healed injuries, possibly from boat strikes, and it was emaciated — it couldn’t forage on its own.”

Apparently, the adult dolphin had taught her baby to beg instead of teaching it to find its own food.

In their sightings of dolphins on local waters, Tara and her students “see a lot of scarred animals.”

Researchers from other areas, she said, “always comment on how beaten up our animals are — likely from getting too close to boats.”

Feeding dolphins can also be hazardous to humans. Dolphins have extremely sharp teeth, and being inadvertently bitten by one can have serious consequences, because a dolphin’s mouth is full of bacteria, and the animals can transmit some nasty mammalian diseases, such as herpes.

Topping all this off is the fact that federal law — the Marine Mammal Protection Act — makes it illegal to harass or feed marine mammals. Violations can result in fines of up to $100,000 and imprisonment for one year.

Tara began teaching at SSU in January 2008, and during the past four years, she and a half-dozen marine sciences graduate students have been researching the dolphin begging problem.

She and two of the grad students started the project in summer 2009, originally intending to focus on “strand feeding” — a foraging technique peculiar to dolphins in Georgia and South Carolina in which the mammals herd fish onto mud banks, then launch themselves onto the shore to take the fish.

“But we didn’t see much of that,” said Tara. “What we saw instead was begging.

“We saw begging on two-thirds of our days on the water. In 25 percent of our sightings of dolphins, there was begging.”
Since that summer, Tara and the students involved in the project have been documenting the begging, and attempting to quantify it and determine “where it’s coming from.”

They’ve compared begging here to the begging in the four other biggest “hot spots” in the world — in Panama City and Sarasota in Florida and in two places in Australia.

“If you compare us to those areas, we are four to five times greater than any of those four places,” Tara said.

As for the source of the begging behavior, she said that some of it might stem from dolphins feeding on the unwanted catch of commercial fishing boats that’s been thrown overboard.

“But that happens all up and down the East Coast,” Tara said.
A more likely source is what she calls “a culture in Savannah of feeding wild bottlenose dolphins.”

Of their attempts to pin down the source, Tara said, “We tried to figure this out on the water, then switched to the human element — we switched to interviewing people.”

A grad student did surveys at fishing piers, marinas and even downtown Savannah, talking to tourists on the street. The student asked interviewees if they had seen people interacting with dolphins and if they had ever wanted to do so.

“It seems like there were a lot of people who know feeding dolphins is illegal and chose to do it anyway,” said Tara. Others, she said, didn’t know it was unlawful to entice dolphins to come near boats.

The findings of the SSU researchers have been submitted in manuscript form to “Marine Mammal Science,” the journal of the Society for Marine Mammalogy.

The manuscript has been favorably received, Tara said, and she expects an article to appear sometime next year in the journal, which, according to its website, “publishes significant new findings on marine mammals resulting from original research.”

She’s hoping such an article would pave the way to obtaining a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration program called “Dolphin Smart” — an educational campaign and certification program for dolphin tour operators that’s been implemented in Panama City and Sarasota.

“We would like to get it here,” Tara said. “One reason we documented the problem was to convince NOAA to bring the program here.”

It’s her experience that, for the most part, operators of local dolphin tours do a good job in educating their customers about the adverse effects of interacting with dolphins and that the operators aren’t a part of the begging problem.

However, bringing in “Dolphin Smart” might be a first step in increasing public awareness of the begging dilemma.

Rich Wittish can be reached via email at

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