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GULFPORT -- The young dolphin that beached himself in Alabama last week was swimming with more confidence Monday, was more curious about his surroundings and was eating from the hands of his caretakers at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies.
Scientists hope he may hold a clue to what has been killing dolphins since just before, during and after the BP oil spill, which began in April 2010.
In the meantime, another young dolphin was found dead on a Mississippi beach Monday. That makes three in three days.
All three were young, according to Moby Solangi, director of IMMS, which collects data from the dead for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA is overseeing the unusual dolphin deaths.
There was, amid the more than 580 dolphins killed, a tremendous spike in the deaths of infant or premature dolphins just prior to the normal spring birthing season this year along Mississippi and Alabama shores.
During the height of the BP oil spill, those infants had just been conceived or were in the early stages of development.
Solangi estimated the age of the recently found dead to be less than a year old. He said, estimating by the length of their bodies, that two of them could have been born in February or March, when so many infants were dying.
“I think something is developing,” Solangi said Monday morning. “I don’t know. It’s strange.”
Dolphin mothers usually move their young to warmer water this time of year, he said, so the young shouldn’t be washing up in Gulfport, Pass Christian and Waveland, where they were found.
Solangi said he hopes the young dolphin found stranded but alive on Wednesday near Mobile Bay will hold a clue to what’s going on, to what might be compromising the immune systems of dolphins. He said the animal has improved considerably and now has an 80 percent chance of surviving.
Blood and tissue samples have been taken, but NOAA controls what type of tests will be done and where they will be conducted.
The public likely will not readily know the results.
The 2-year-old animal is considered part of an Unusual Mortality Event, and also part of evidence NOAA is collecting in ongoing criminal and civil investigations into the BP oil spill.
Marine mammal experts with NOAA said Monday they don’t believe the dolphin at IMMS will be “the smoking gun” for the dolphin deaths.
Dr. Teri Rowles, NOAA’s lead marine mammal veterinarian, said it’s difficult to interpret what’s wrong with a stranded dolphin.
“We may or may not be able to determine if oil made the animal sick,” Rowles said.
NOAA’s Erin Fougeres said, “I don’t think any one animal is going to tell us what’s causing these animals to die.”
It’s a cumulative investigation, she said, and they look at the population as a whole.
GULFPORT -- Two more dead dolphins have washed ashore in the last 24 hours.
One of the dolphins was a female under a year old found in Gulfport and the other, a male also under the age of a year old, was found in Pass Christian, said Mobi Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies.
A total of five dolphins have now washed ashore along beaches in South Mississippi and Alabama in the last week. Solangi said it’s “very unusual” to find dead dolphins this time of year.
Read Monday’s edition of the Sun Herald for more details.
GULFPORT, Mississippi -- A sickly, stranded dolphin that was found in Alabama and transported to Gulfport to convalesce and be studied could provide clues to a spike in dolphin deaths that has occurred over the past year.
The 2-year-old male is the first to be found alive since the BP oil spill last spring, according to Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, where the dolphin is being held.
The spike coincided with the spill, but to date no definitive link has been made between the spill and the deaths, which in south Mississippi and Alabama are three to four times what they are in a normal year.
"From a scientific standpoint, this is a very significant event," Solangi said of the dolphin being found alive. He said two dead dolphins were found within a few miles of the survivor.
"So much is unknown or lost when you're testing necrotic tissue rather than tissue from a live animal," he said. "We're hoping this will bring us closer to solving the puzzle, give us some better answers."
Biologists have speculated that the millions of gallons of crude oil that spilled into the Gulf, and the subsequent applications of dispersants, may have affected the immune systems of marine animals such as dolphins and turtles.
In a typical year, about 30 dead dolphins are found along Mississippi and Alabama beaches, Solangi said. There have been more than 100 over the course of the past year, he said.
"Of course, people are more on the lookout for them (since the spill), but there is obviously something going on."
This past February and March, for example, saw a historic number of dead dolphin fetuses and babies, he said.
People found the survivor dolphin in a marshy area of Fort Morgan on Wednesday. They tried to gently push him back into the water, but it kept beaching itself, Solangi said. That is when the institute was contacted and transportation arrangements were made.
"He's been here three days, and he's still somewhat nervous and disoriented," Solangi said.
The animal arrived dehydrated with cuts, bruises and parasites. It is being treated with antibiotics and liquids, and fed through a tube, he said.
On Saturday afternoon, it made slow circles in a 50-foot, above-ground pool located in a sterile, enclosed tent at the institute. It came up a few times each minute for air.
Blood and tissue samples have been taken, and they are scheduled to be sent Monday to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facilities around the country for testing.
As for the dolphin, Solangi gives it a 50-50 chance of survival.
He said Saturday that its swimming had become a little steadier.
"He's in guarded condition," Solangi said. "We've got him on 24-7 watch."
Visitors to the dolphin's tent are required to wash their shoes and wear facemasks. Should the dolphin survive, chances are the institute will try to integrate it back into the wild, Solangi said.
GULFPORT -- A dolphin stranded in Alabama waters was still alive this week when dolphin-rescue workers got to him.
It’s the break they’ve been waiting for since winter 2010, when dolphins began dying all along the shores of the northern Gulf.
Rescuers brought him to the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, where he was clinging to life Friday, nervously swimming in circles in a climate-controlled hospital tank at the institute.
The 2-year-old male dolphin, not quite an adult, was dehydrated and bruised, with scrapes all over his body and parasites inside and out.
But he was alive, and his body could hold a major clue to the deaths of hundreds since the BP oil spill.
“This is something that we didn’t think would ever happen,” said Moby Solangi, director of the institute. “He’s a specimen from the wild, and he’s sick. From him, it’s possible we can learn the cause and effect” for the dolphin die-off.
Also important to the find is at least two other dolphins were found dead in the same general area about the same time, Solangi said.
IMMS focused on the survivor, found Wednesday in a marshy area near Fort Morgan at the mouth of Mobile Bay. People tried repeatedly to push him back into the water, but he continued to beach himself, Solangi said.
IMMS teams retrieved him and have been working around the clock to keep the animal alive.
“The federal government is treating this with the highest priority,” Solangi said. “We’re sending blood and tissue samples Monday.”
This is the first stranded dolphin, after hundreds of dead, to be found alive in Mississippi and Alabama waters since the BP oil spill, Solangi said.
Most of the dead in the northern Gulf have been so decomposed it is difficult to determine why they died. More than 580 have died since February 2010, three months before the BP oil spill began, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started noticing the unusual number of deaths.
The dead on Mississippi and Alabama shores have included many stillborn calves and pregnant adults.
There have been no signs of oil on the carcasses.
But biologists have speculated the millions of gallons of crude oil spilled, and dispersant used to fight the spill, could have weakened the dolphins and compromised their immune systems. Similar speculations have been made about the hundreds of sea-turtle deaths.
In late October, however, NOAA Fisheries released a finding that a form of marine brucella bacterium killed five of the dolphins that died in Louisiana waters last year. Brucella is believed to cause miscarriages and death in dolphins, but not usually in large numbers.
It could be argued many of the dead found in Mississippi and Alabama were carried by currents from great distances in the Gulf, because they were very decomposed.
But Solangi said this dolphin was likely from a pod in local waters and that’s significant.
Biologists began taking blood and tissue samples from the animal. But the federal government will control how the samples are tested.
“He’s a significant piece of the puzzle,” Solangi said. “One specimen that showed up sick.”
At stake could be millions of dollars, if this dolphin proves the deaths of the mammals can be linked to the spill.
“Where forensics might not be conclusive, with a live animal there’s no ifs, ands or buts,” Solangi said. “It is what it is.”
Scientifically, he said, this a step to finding out what’s been going on in the wild since the spill.
The dolphin’s chances
The young dolphin is 6½ feet long and was listing Friday as he swam with a rocking motion, around and around in a small, climate- and germ-controlled pool. Barnacles clung to his fins. The deep indentation along his back indicated he was very dehydrated.
But its breathing was consistent and there was no discharge from its blow hole.
He had been in captivity almost two days and still hadn’t eaten. And eating is crucial, because dolphins get water via their food, Solangi said.
He gave the animal a 50-50 chance of surviving, but said when he began swimming on his own, they moved him from critical condition to guarded.
“Every day he lives, the better his chances,” Solangi said. “We’ve been trying to feed him, but he’s really nervous and disoriented.”
Solangi said his team has used a tube to get nourishment and vitamins into the animal. He is on antibiotics and steroids.
IMMS has three veterinarians specializing in marine mammals working on the case. Solangi has been receiving texts and calls from NOAA since his team picked up the animal.
His institute functions under a federal permit. And it is against the law to touch or move a stranded dolphin without that permit.
NOAA has collected the hundreds of samples taken during the nearly two-year die-off of dolphins in the northern Gulf. It has control of the event, officially considered an Unusual Mortality Event or UME, and the testing that’s being done on the samples. And as with the others, all the samples taken from this animal will go to NOAA. Rescue agencies follow a strict protocol when an UME is in effect.
With the holiday closings, Solangi said it would be at least a week before they know if the dolphin has any type of bacterial infection.