HELP SCIENTISTS LEARN ABOUT OUR MOST FASCINATING WILDLIFE
Admit it: You may not always see them, but you always look for them.
Sneaking a quick glance from the Cross Island Parkway and the bridges that connect Hilton Head Island to the mainland, most of us scan the waters below for the tell-tale fins of bottlenose dolphins as they break the surface.
In the Lowcountry ecosystem where American alligators share turf with majestic blue herons, there’s something particularly fascinating about dolphins. Locally, dolphin research is synonymous with Dr. Eric Montie of the Marine Sensory and Neurobiology Lab in the Coastal Ecology and Conservation Program at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. He and his team of students and researchers have been out on the water constantly since 2015, taking stock of local marine mammals as well as the many “tourist”dolphins who arrive here from up and down the coast.
“Right now, we’re focusing in the May River. We go out on the May one or two times a month,” Montie said. “Every time we see a bottlenose dolphin… we take a picture of its dorsal fin as a marker of that dolphin.”
Dolphins’ dorsal fins are unique to them as fingerprints are to humans, allowing for a precise study of local and migrant dolphins. The data is also being used to get a clearer picture of the overall health of Lowcountry waters.
“Bottlenose dolphins serve as apex predators. They’re a good indicator of how the marine ecosystem is functioning,” Montie said.
In addition to the population counts, researchers are taking audio recordings, and have plans for deeper studies of the environmental stressors these animals face.
To fund this research, USCB is appealing to local and visiting dolphin lovers.
“Adopting a dolphin would be a really powerful thing to do because that helps fund our program,” Montie said.
The Adopt-A-Dolphin program is coordinated through the Coastal Discovery Museum, and adopters who participate receive regular updates on their dolphin. Sixty percent of all adoption money goes to the scientists who study the dolphins, helps pay the salaries of interns studying the dolphins, and buys boat fuel and supplies. Thirty percent of adoption money goes to the Coastal Discovery Museum to fund educational programs and exhibits, and provide scholarships for needy students to attend these programs. Ten percent of adoption money pays for mailings, gifts and other materials about each dolphin to the adopter. There are two levels of adoptions: a $50 visitor-level adoption includes an adoption certificate with a photo of your dolphin’s dorsal fin and monthly updates on where they’ve been spotted. With a $100 local-level adoption, you adopt one of the area’s resident dolphins and receive its photo and a T-shirt.
Adopters can wear their shirts with pride the next time they cross over the bridges to Hilton Head Island — and see if they can spot their dolphin. For more information go online to www.coastaldiscovery.org.