All dolphin photography taken under MMPA Permit #21938-03.
May not be used for commercial purposes.
By Stefanie Gazda, President of CKDP
One of the many roles that the Cedar Key Dolphin Project plays is to assist in any way possible if an animal is in crisis. Fortunately there are not that many of those calls in our part of the world (likely due to fewer people along the coast and less pollution/trash in the waters). In the middle of July that change and added an extra dimension to our field season.
We received a call from UF Marine Animal Rescue (UF-MAR) in mid-July that there was a report of a possibly entangled calf off of the City Beach in Cedar Key. UF-MAR was able to find the dolphin right away, and we joined them shortly afterwards to take photos of the mom and calf to see if we could identify them later on land. We were actually able to ID them right away because we had seen them so much this summer: the mom was NLCT (Nail) and the calf was DTNL (Dit), a young of the year (YOY) believed to have been born in March of this year.
It's not as simple as it might seem to grab an entangled dolphin and take the line off. First, dolphins are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and any harassment of a dolphin at that level needs permission from NOAA, even from trained responders. Second, this is a calf under six months old: they are very vulnerable to stress, and there is a risk of causing more harm to the infant by trying to disentangle it without being very strategic about it. Last, we didn't know exactly how entangled the calf was: it was acting like a normal calf, frolicking around its mom and swimming normally. More research was needed, and this is where we came in.
While UF-MAR worked on coordinating a response with NOAA, we continued over the next several weeks to monitor the calf and mom. We were able to provide a sighting history of the mom and calf to UF-MAR and the responders: NLCT is known for going in the backwaters along Channel Three and behind Scale Key. For all the years that we've collected data on her (since 2018), she's always around Dog Island, the City Beach, and behind Cedar Key. This was good and bad news. Good news: that she's a resident and doesn't go very far so we'd likely be able to find her again. Bad news: if you've ever gone through Channel Three, you know there is a lot of stuff for a boat to get hung up on. That makes an attempt to disentangle a calf even more difficult if you are dodging oyster bars.
While we waited for the schedules of trained personnel, weather, tides, and wind to match up, UF-MAR determined that the material surrounding the calf was cover netting, which is one of the biggest marine debris problems in Cedar Key. CKDP was able to capture drone footage (allowed under our research permit, without which we would have to fly our drone at an altitude of at least 400 feet) and found that the netting was also wrapped around the calf's pectoral fin.
We also relied on information from Captain Phil at Tidewater Tours, who told us where and when he saw the calf, whenever he saw them. This gave us more information about their habits and more data for the team. We took behavioral data at every sighting and luckily DTNL appeared to be healthy and vigorous, which was great news. Still, DTNL is a rapidly growing baby and that netting had to come off as soon as possible.
Finally, the weather and people all lined up and the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP) at Mote Marine Labs sent two trained personnel to disentangle the calf remotely (you can read their account here). Instead of using a net to corral the calf, they would try to grab the line with a long pole. Using a net is difficult even in beautiful waters, but given the combination of the silt in the water in Cedar Key, the oyster bars, and the calf's young age, a pole was the safer choice. On August 9th, CKDP and UF-MAR launched their boats and we searched all along the waterfront. After three hours, the CKDP boat found NLCT and DTNL traveling around Dog Island. While we waited for the UF-MAR boat to approach, we took more behavioral data and photos. Once the UF-MAR boat was on site, the SDRP personnel got to work, carefully approaching mom and calf in a slow and steady manner with the boat while one of them held a long pole with a grapple on the end of it. Within 20 minutes they made their first attempt to grab the line as DTNL approached the boat. DTNL tail-slapped and dove down, but the action of drawing the grapple across the dolphin caused the netting to snap! It's unclear if the grapple made significant contact with the calf, but most likely it was a combination of DTNL flinching, the netting starting to degrade, and contact with the grapple that freed DTNL.
After the disentanglement, the CKDP moved in to collect behavioral data to make sure that DTNL was not too stressed out by being touched by the metal grapple pole. Calf and mom continued to surface normally and closely together, which is great. There seems to be some scarring that DTNL has from the netting, which they will likely carry forever, but think of the story they have to tell now!
We will continue to monitor this calf and mom to make sure that both animals are doing well. Many thanks to UF-MAR, SDRP, Tidewater Tours, and those that offered to help us out when our boat was down for maintenance. We are so grateful for your support! We continue to collect data for specific research questions, as well as baseline monitoring of the population, which are invaluable in making operations like this rescue possible. We will be looking for a new (used) boat within the next year, and we are asking for any financial help you can lend us. Your donations are tax-deductible and will go a long way in helping us achieve our long-term research goals by staying on the water.
Remote disentanglement was conducted at the request of NOAA, the federal agency responsible for overseeing the stewardship of marine mammals in U.S. waters, under Permit No. 24359 issued to NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. Dolphin photography taken under MMPA permit 21938-03. May not be used or reproduced.
By Jolinde Vlaeyen (PhD Candidate and Lab Manager)
Dolphin research is not all about fun and spending time collecting data on amazing dolphins, it also comes full of challenges, whether it is the behavior of the dolphins, the weather, or all the technicalities of planning a smooth sailing field season. This season especially has been intense with all of these things.
One of the challenges that we deal with every season, is working with wild animals, who definitely have a mind of their own. As such, we usually need to adapt following what they do, which is what science is. However, this year the dolphins have been behaving quite different compared to otheryears; we see them very often in the same places, in very big groups (±30), and rarely in small groups.
For this year’s data collection, this is rather frustrating, because to answer my research questions, small groups of dolphins are preferred. This way, we can more easily identify who vocalizes, who responds, and see on the camera and drone what is happening underwater. When the dolphins are in big groups, it is rather difficult to follow each individual. Why they are behaving differently this year is still something we’re trying to understand. Other researchers around Cedar Key mentioned that the turtles and the sharks are also behaving differently this year, so my bet is on climate change.
Another challenge is the weather. Because we have a small boat and because dolphin spotting becomes harder once the waves become bigger, we can only go out on the water when the weather is near perfection: glassy waters, barely any swell, and no rain. Usually, the mornings in this area are as described, and the wind and/or rain pushes us back on land between 2-4pm. Yet, this year, rain and storms have been too common in the mornings, meaning we cannot go out, and a side effect of this is that the water has been murkier for longer periods, and therefore not easy to see the dolphins through it with the drone.
The biggest challenge this year however has been technicalities. We are using a combination of a drone, so we are able to also see what they do from a different angle, as well as acoustic recordings. We have been fighting the drone this season, as it created a lot of issues for us, and some were fixable, others were not. We were able to buy a new one, but that one failed, and then tried another one which also had issues. That drone has been discontinued, so, we decided to buy a different brand, which is not waterproof, meaning we need to be extra careful catching it on the boat. Because we are a small NGO, these decisions need to be taken carefully, because we do not have the money to buy multiple drones at once.
The other big issue has been the boat engine, which has had multiple different issues over this season. All of this means a lot of waiting, either for the drones and engine parts to be shipped, and then the fixing itself as well, resulting in days of less or no data collection.
What has been amazing is the community feeling in and around Cedar Key. People have generously offered to lend us their boat; while we were fixing our engine at the dock, others have tried to help us out in the nicest ways; and our mechanic has been very helpful and fixing our boat issues fast as possible to get us back to doing research ASAP. I could not be more grateful for how everyone has been involved and helpful! Thanks to this, we have had a great run these past days, have finally been able to get the data we needed, and observed amazing – and maybe even new – behaviors in combination with some vocalizations. Let’s hope this field season ends on this high note!
As much as this season has been the most challenging one just yet, this year for me has been the best year with the Cedar Key Dolphin Project, and I will be back next year!