Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Final Report

I woke up Thursday morning and enjoyed a nice cup of coffee while packing my bags. Our flight wasn’t until 11:30am from Mobile, AL, but we had a busy morning ahead. The battery that died on our last survey effort needed to be replaced. We ran by the marine supply store, picked up a second battery and headed back to the lab for installation. We installed the battery and took off for the airport. Everyone hopped on the plane and we took off for home.

Pictured above, Oil Containment Boom Protects Shoreline
Oil containment booms placed by BP contracted boats protect the waters of Biloxi, Mississippi to prevent oil from the Deepwater Horizon from reaching the beach. Deepwater Horizon was an ultra-deepwater oil rig that sank April 22, causing an oil spill threatening the waters near the U.S. Gulf Coast. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (EXW/SW) Corey Truax/Released)

What a trip! More dolphins than I ever would have expected after experiencing Grand Isle, LA, great surveys and data collection opportunities and NO OIL to be seen the entire week we were there. I also heard through the grapevine that commercial fishing was reopening where we were located. All in all, with these conditions, I left feeling extremely positive about the Gulf situation. There is still a lot to be done and wildlife in the area is still in need of help and restoration, but we’re moving in a positive direction and that is hopeful.

I could not feel more fortunate that I work with such a supportive group of people at the Aquarium that allowed my participation in the Gulf dolphin research to be a possibility. I appreciate not only the support of our staff, but also the community. This was the last trip that I will be taking to assist the researchers on this project. I know they will continue to do amazing work on this project and would like to send a huge thank you to that team for inviting me to be a part of such an important project.

Take care everyone and always remember, just because you’re miles away, you can do your part by living green! With that, I will officially sign off!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Back on The Water!

After a long weekend off the water, we are finally able to commence on this beautiful Monday morning! With current tropical storm Bonnie heading our way, the “higher ups” put the kabash on our surveying over the weekend. But after two long days of waiting, it was exciting to wake up and see blue skies and sunshine! We went straight to the lab and started to load the boats. Food coolers, boat instruments, extra water and life jackets—CHECK! And all aboard! We put the boats in the water and took off to find our track lines.

The wind was whipping, but we worked through it all morning long. Our first sighting was about 15 minutes into the survey and the dolphins today were slightly less interested in our presence than the dolphins surveyed on Friday. The first dolphins we sighted were rather evasive, showing their dorsal fins for a moment, disappearing and then resurfacing in a completely unexpected area. It was a challenge to keep up with them to say the least! We ended that sighting and continued on. The heat has been intense, but a scattered storm lightened the temperature slightly which was much appreciated by all! We kept looking for more dorsal fins and were coming up a little short as the wind was getting stronger.

Wind is probably one of our worst enemies on these surveys; I noticed how difficult it became to spot a floating pelican resting in the water due to the heavy chop created—you can imagine how difficult it is to spot a small dorsal fin! We were lucky to find a few more dolphins before turning into a wind from the southeast, we had to call it a day. Our boat was pounding on the water, which was throwing us back and forth. The chop was pretty heavy and the hope of spotting any more dorsal fins was gone. We turned around to head back to the dock. While a bit of a slow day, good news is that we saw no oil between either crew! Tomorrow, the plan is to head out at 7 a.m. sharp. More to report soon, with possible special guests joining our crew, so stay tuned!!

Photo courtesy of Deepwater Horizon Response Photostream- The Coast Guard Cutter Decisive steams through the Gulf of Mexico as dark clouds from Tropical Storm Bonnie enter the gulf.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Round Two in The Gulf!

Round two, and I find myself in the Gulf once again surveying bottlenose dolphins. This time the crew and I are stationed in Pascagoula, Mississippi, working from the local research lab. The flight was great, no delays and I met a delightful Australian from Atlanta to Mobile, Alabama, where we landed. (I’m a talker, so it was nice to have someone to chat with for the hour.) After stopping by the lab briefly, we grabbed a quick dinner—for me, fried green tomatoes and some crab bisque—mmmm!-and headed back to the hotel to crash for the evening. The Pascagoula La Quinta Inn is where we are setting up camp for the next week.

Photo Courtesy of Deepwater Horizon Response Photostream- PORT PASCAGOULA, Miss. – Pelicans and other local fowl relax in Port Pascagoula, Miss., near one of the largest oil refineries in North America, May 6, 2010.

We woke up early this morning to grab a quick bite at the continental breakfast and headed for the lab for our first day of work. We had to get a special exemption to go out on the water today since officials shut down all work operations this afternoon due to tropical storm Bonnie moving in our direction. Knowing that the weather would be fine this afternoon specifically, they granted us leave until 5 p.m. We set off for a full day of dolphin sightings and came across so many; we watched as they indulged in aerials, tail slapping, and socializing of all sorts!! What an experience! We found two rather large groups that we spent the majority of our day with, and all of the excitement helped me to forget the stagnant heat emanating all day. I found myself a little sunburned, but nothing too severe. This experience was so different from the work in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Most of our time here was spent with dolphins. In Grand Isle, we were lucky if we had 2-3 sightings per day. Close to 5 p.m. this afternoon, we received a call ordering a mandatory end to our day. We returned to the lab, loaded up the boats and hit the road for some dinner. We stopped at a Ruby Tuesday and were all so thankful to have some sort of hot meal. I was running on a muffin and a banana that day—not enough and not usual- so I very much enjoyed ALL of my dinner this evening. We are still unsure as to what this weekend will bring. We have been told no one is working on the water for the next two days, so it looks like we will be waiting it out. I’ll keep you all posted!! Thanks as always for tuning in!!

Photo Courtesy of Petra Gustkey

Monday, July 5, 2010

Home Sweet Home

We were all set to go out for one more day on the water and leave the following day, July 7th. We turned on the weather channel first thing that morning to see what was awaiting us that day and saw that a low was hovering just under our survey area. Not good news. We still attempted to go out; we arrived at the lab and noticed that none of the state workers were launching any boats that morning either. A gentleman we had seen several times working at the state lab swung by the lobby, where we were anxiously watching the radar and simply said, “Y’all won’t be gettin’ out today now”. And he was right- these weather conditions were hideous and we would not have seen a dorsal fin even if it popped up directly next to our boat. We all decided to call it a day and a trip, for that matter. We packed up all of our belongings and took off from Grand Isle. We headed to Pascagoula, Mississippi again so that we could drop off the boats for the next trip and then decided to keep moving so the next day of driving would not be so intense. We finally settled near Pensacola, Florida and hit the sack. The next morning we had some breakfast and hit the road again, making it home around 4 o’clock that afternoon. I could not have been more excited to see our beautiful city’s bridge and cross over it, coming home to my sweet pup Henry.

Photo courtesy of Deepwater Horizon Response Photostream- PENSACOLA, Fla. (May 4, 2010) Kayakers at Naval Air Station Pensacola detour around oil containment boom at Sherman Cove aboard the base.

What a week and a half! A great experience, but, again, a humbling one. It was amazing to see how many people from all over the country were pitching in to help with the spill. Some of these individuals have been helping down there for weeks and months, taking time from their family and loved ones. Seeing first hand how this spill has affected the environment is heartbreaking,
but seeing all of the effort people are contributing to help and correct the situation is encouraging at the same time. I am so appreciative of the researchers who allowed me to accompany and help them with this important project. Knowing efforts are continuing will help me stay positive in this otherwise grim situation. Always keep in mind that even if one feels helpless when hearing about situaions like this, there is always something one can do from home to help—keeping your mind Green and doing your part from home is always beneficial to wildlife as a whole.

Photo Courtesy of Deepwater Horizon Response Photostream- LAFOURCHE PARISH, La. – Workers, contracted by BP, clean up oil on the beaches in Port Fourchon, Louisiana during night operations

I appreciate all of the support from FOLKS (Friends of Lake Keowee) to the crew in Greenwood, South Carolina and beyond! I hope that you all enjoyed following along through my journey in Grand Isle. Stay tuned for future efforts and always feel free to send any questions our way! Take care everyone!

This is Shelley Dearhart, Educator at the South Carolina Aquarium- Sigining off!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Long Day On the Water

Its Saturday afternoon, July 3rd—the day before most people are going to shoot fireworks, celebrate with family, friends and enjoy good food. Looking out onto the beach here in Grand Isle, LA you would think it is the middle of winter if the heat was not so intense—the beaches are empty. We are back from a long morning on the water…

photo courtsey of Flickr - Empty Pensacola beach with a washed up oil-coated feather

Waking up this morning was a breath of fresh air. 6:50am, very rested and the skies were sunny for miles it looked! With high hopes, we launched our boats and took off for Barataria Bay yet again to finish our track lines. As we approached our starting point, we noticed we were heading directly into a line of rain storms. I’m sure you all are as surprised as we were to hear that. But this time we decided to push through—no lightning and no thunder meant keep on truckin! We came across a few dolphins just before hitting the rain showers. The dolphins we encountered to this point have been less than cooperative in allowing us to capture a great photograph of their dorsal fin and these were no exception. We would see a dolphin 50m east of our boat and headed in that direction just to find he or she would pop up 50m west of our boat and so on and so forth. I felt a little as if we were being toyed with, but that comes with researching wild animals I suppose.

Barataria Bay, Grand Isle -Photo courtsey of Flickr, JEFFERSON PARISH, La. — Containment boom and sorbent boom block a patch of oil from reaching an island populated by brown and white pelicans and many other species of birds in Barataria Bay, Grand Isle.

I think this might also be a great time to mention that the research being conducted through NOAA is done by permit only. Going out to find dolphins and photograph them in any other capacity is in fact illegal and violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act enacted in 1972. This Act was put into place with the intention to protect marine mammals from any sort of harassment which include chasing, feeding, touching or any interaction with marine mammals in the wild. Always keep in mind if you’re out on the water and see a dolphin, appreciate it from a distance, never try and track it as I have been describing through our research efforts here. If you’d like more information regarding responsible viewing of marine mammals, check out

photo courtsey of Flickr - Warning Sign

Back to the afternoon—we seemed to have lost the group of dolphins we were tracking so we pushed forward heading straight for dark clouds. We whipped out our rain gear, wiped our glasses clean and kept an eye out for dorsal fins which became that much more difficult to spot in these conditions. We had one more successful sighting of a mom/calf pair in the afternoon. It never gets old seeing the little ones following closely alongside mom. After collecting some behavioral data from these two and a few others in the area, we left to wrap up the track lines for the day.

Almost immediately, the wind picked up—the showers had cleared, so we had sunny skies again, but the swells grew to about 2 ft or so. Again, these conditions were creating a challenging atmosphere while looking for fins. Unfortunately, this challenge seemed to get the best of our scouting as we finished our lines with no more sightings. We did find a plastic bag floating in the water which we made sure to grab as many marine animals, especially sea turtles, will mistake this trash for food and eat it, potentially causing death if entangled or ingested. I also managed to find my neck line and arms a new shade of rosy pink by the end of the day….ugh—I know I’ll feel that in the morning. We took the boats out of the water and left them to go through a decontamination process. The state lab generously offered to clean our boats this evening to cut down on accumulating buildup over the past few days.

Photo courtsey of Flickr - Outer bands of Tropical Storm Alex darken the sky

Home, we’re all a bit exhausted, but being July 3rd, we generated enough energy to go out and grab a bite to eat. We ate at a little diner called Sarah’s and met some of the locals who shared how the spill is affecting their lifestyle on the island. One was a restaurant owner herself, she runs a little place called ‘The Lighthouse’ and mentioned that this spill has really hurt their business. We have eaten at two other restaurants while in the area with seafood as the main item on their menu. Some of these restaurants have a long list of what they “are out of” while others, like Sarah’s restaurant are looking for alternatives up the road, such as freshwater sources of whatever they can find. The staff at Sarah’s was very accommodating and the food was great! After getting a nice meal, we drove past a handful of locals who set up chairs along the side of the road for a fireworks show apparently sponsored by BP. We watched a bit of the “show” and headed back into the house to call it a night.

The forecast tomorrow (Sunday, July 4) is calling for high winds, not promising for good sightings, but we will have to work with what Mother Nature sends our way. I’ll keep you all posted on our progress.

Follow-up from Meeting Jeff Corwin

I should mention when Jeff Corwin and the Fish and Wildlife crew returned, they brought with them a single loggerhead—it looked to be around 175-200lbs (estimating the weight from the Aquarium’s very own Caretta—who I’m sure many of you know is a 250 loggerhead). The turtle they found seemed to be incredibly lethargic and looked to have some oil on his carapace (or back shell). They found him floating near a bed of sargassum, rescued the little (big) guy and brought him back to the lab. Mr. Corwin did film a quick segment on the docks, so if you watch his program, keep an eye out for a loggerhead found off Grand Isle, LA. The turtle was taken to the sea turtle and marine mammal rescue center I mentioned in a previous entry.

Right now, his future is looking a little brighter I hope. An easy way to help a sea turtle or dolphin from your own home is simply to shop using reusable bags instead of plastic bags. Just like the one we found during our surveys, plastic bags are lost or trashed and make their way to ocean waters. They are often eaten by marine life who cannot digest the synthetic material and may suffer or die as a result. Many stores give reusable bags away or charge $1.00 to purchase. It is absolutely worth the dollar to save animals suffering from our trash and every time you use these bags you can think about how much you are doing to help! Until next time, keep marine life on your mind and keep that mind Green!

photo courtsey of Flickr - Green Grocery Shopping Bag

Friday, July 2, 2010

Meeting Jeff Corwin and 20 Plus Dolphin Sightings!

Friday morning was off to a great start. Rain showers were in the distance and threatening to come our way but we were clear for launching. We headed for the state lab and as we put the boats in the water, a gentleman approached asking if we were “turtle people” and I quickly replied (as much as I love turtles) that no, we were in fact “dolphin people.” The gentleman asking was none other than Mr. Jeff Corwin! He was down for the afternoon to do a segment on sea turtles in the Gulf and went out onto the water with Louisiana’s Fish and Wildlife crew to see if they could find any turtles in need. It was a pretty exciting way to start off the day and after a quick handshake and picture, we hit the water to look for dolphins.

Photo courtesy of Deepwater Horizon Response Photostream VENICE, La., - NBC correspondent and biologist Jeff Corwin gives a motivational speech and thanks responders for their efforts at the Plaquemines Parish branch for the Deepwater Horizon response in Venice, La.,

We had a few successful sightings and then noticed a fairly large storm system working towards us. We were working a site where we had seen about 4 or 5 dolphins when our other crew called us in. The storm was approaching fast and we did not want to get caught in the middle of it. To that point in the day, we had seen anywhere from 15-20 dolphins and still no oil. We waited back at the state lab for the storm to pass and then went back out for round two of surveys.

Photo courtesy of flickr

This second trip was incredibly smooth compared to the morning, the water was almost flat. It was interesting observing how many other boats were out in the bay. We had been working track lines in Caminada Bay and were heading towards Barataria Bay this afternoon. Boats were Everywhere! Skimmers and boats carrying boom, shrimp boats were all around—I can only assume working to soak up any oil and not shrimping. The bay was definitely heavy with traffic where we were heading. Some of the birds looked a little confused as to why there was not more to offer from the shrimp boats that were out on the water. They were all searching for scraps but coming up with empty beaks. We worked more lines but did not see too many dolphins the rest of the afternoon. At around five o’clock, we called it a day and began to head back for the lab. After getting to the lab, the researchers downloaded all of the data collected for the day and we came home to cook a nice lasagna dinner (frozen but delicious!) We all hit the sack around 9:30pm so we would be well rested for another day on the water.