McCulloch resumes research on dolphins in lagoon
Stephen McCulloch, the island resident made famous in Hollywood movies for his dolphin rescues, is back on the waters of the Indian River Lagoon this month resuming his ground-breaking marine mammal research, this time under the auspices of the Georgia Aquarium.
The resumption of the program may have come none too soon – the first dolphins he found in the northern part of the lagoon were in weakened conditions, McCulloch says.
The 1,000 or so bottlenose dolphins that inhabit the lagoon are the most studied dolphins in the world, according to Gregory Bossart, the aquarium’s Chief Veterinary Officer and Senior Vice President.
This remarkable fact is due to mainly to an internationally renowned research program Bossart and McCulloch launched at Harbor Branch in 2003. That program, known as HERA – short for Dolphin Health and Environmental Risk Assessment – has yielded extensive new marine mammal knowledge.
The research was derailed for two years when McCulloch was forced out of the marine mammal research and rescue program he co-created at Harbor Branch, but it is now back on track. A team of 70 specialists using 11 boats was out on the lagoon last week, and work continued this week, with the goal of examining 40 bottlenose dolphins.
“We started this as a health assessment, just looking at dolphins, but it has morphed into also using marine mammals as sentinels for the health of our oceans and human health,” says Bossart, who is the program’s lead scientist and who holds the federal permit – one of only three in the country – that allows for the temporary capture and medical examination of wild dolphins. Patricia Fair of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration is co-principle investigator, along with Bossart.
“This year’s Georgia Aquarium Dolphin Health and Environmental Risk Assessment is taking place in the northern region of the Indian River Lagoon,” McCulloch says. “This area has experienced three unusual mortality events in which large numbers of dolphins died, most recently in 2013. The HERA team hopes to unlock clues as to the cause of these die-offs that also affect manatees, sea turtles and marine birds – and humans.
“Our mission is to protect these magnificent marine mammals and make sure they always have a future in the coastal waters of Florida that we all share.”
That mission got underway this year on July 6 with a 7 p.m. orientation briefing in a Titusville hotel meeting room led by McCulloch, who has resumed the role he had at Harbor Branch as program manager and field coordinator, overseeing HERA’s complex logistics and on-water activities.
He stressed safety, for both the animals and people involved, and noted that the group gathered in the room – students, scientists, veterinarians, net makers, boat captains, marine mechanics, animal care specialists and general volunteers – probably had more than 1,000 years of collective marine mammal research and handling experience.
The next morning, the boat crews gathered at the Kennedy Point Marina at 7 a.m. and loaded mostly volunteered vessels with nets, scientific equipment, specimen containers, spare boat parts and lots of ice and sunscreen.
A scout boat led the way, looking for small groups of dolphins in shallow water. When a group of two or three adult dolphins was spotted, the lead chase boat with Bossart and McCulloch aboard carefully assessed conditions prior to giving the “all clear” signal to the net boat. After the net boat encircled the dolphins with a specially-made net, several more chase boats glided up around the perimeter of the net and the capture was underway.
McCulloch says great care is taken to insure that no manatees or sea turtles are in the net area and that no pregnant animals or mother-calf pairs are disturbed.
Volunteers wading in waist- or chest-deep water slowly closed the net and restrained the animals, using special stretchers to lift them onto a pontoon boat where the medical examination took place. Skilled marine mammal vets, including island resident Juli Goldstein, took blood, blubber, urine, fecal and blowhole samples. Dolphins’ teeth were checked and an ultrasound was administered.
In a lab area on the same boat – use of which was donated by Sunshine Wildlife Tours in Stuart – the samples were processed and packaged for shipment to government, university and aquarium labs around the country.
McCulloch says the weather the first week was ideal – aside from the scorching heat – with flat, calm water and great visibility, and 20 dolphins were examined.
He says precise details of their condition will become clear only when lab samples are analyzed, but his initial assessment is that many of the animals were not in great shape. On a scale of one to four, with one being sickly and four being robust, he says most were probably twos, which reinforces the urgency of the HERA team’s mission.
“Most of their bodies were soft and most had thin blubber layers,” McCulloch says. “We also observed evidence of eye problems and shark attacks.”
Despite some being in weakened conditions, all the animals were released safely back into the lagoon.
“We have examined more than 400 dolphins since HERA began and we have never lost or injured an animal,” McCulloch says.
The boats headed back to the marina in midafternoon in time to catch the FedEx truck so tissue and other biomedical samples could be sent in cryogenic containers to labs spread across the country from the University of Miami to the University of California, Davis.
The data that comes from those labs’ analysis will help Bossart and his colleagues gain a clearer understanding of the dolphin population’s condition and of threats to the lagoon ecosystem and human health. That understanding, in turn, will help guide state and federal officials as they decide how best to protect Florida’s coastal ecosystems.
This year’s HERA mission had the air of a family reunion and was a striking vindication for McCulloch.
When he was fired from Harbor Branch under questionable circumstances last year, it was traumatic not just for him but for many in the marine mammal research and care community.
Impassioned letters poured into FAU administrator’s in baskets from leading marine biologists and conservationists around the country, protesting the termination.Bossart moved HERA from Harbor Branch to the Georgia Aquarium as a result of McCulloch being fired and he reinforced a sense of McCulloch's importance to the marine science community at the briefing in Titusville last Monday, telling the packed room that “the best thing about [resuming the HERA research] is that we have resurrected Steve McCulloch! We couldn’t do this without him.”