Dolphins can be seen around Southern Maryland
It has been my family’s tradition to visit Ocean City during the wintertime.
Not many places are open for business in the dead of winter, but the beaches certainly aren’t crowded and can still be combed for treasures, and the hotel rates are more than reasonable.
The seashore is just as beautiful in winter, maybe even more so. And one of the highlights of those winter trips is sitting on the balcony enjoying a cup of hot coffee and watching a pod of dolphins track the coastline as the sun rises.
But you don’t have to go to Ocean City, or anywhere on the Atlantic Ocean actually, to see a pod of dolphins cavorting in the water. In fact, from April to August, you have a fair chance of seeing a dolphin (or a dozen or more) in our local waters if you spend enough time outside and near the water.
Last week, I headed over to the Asbury community center in Calvert County to hear Dr. Helen Bailey, a scientist from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, give a presentation on dolphins in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
You might be surprised that dolphins have been sighted as far north as the Bay Bridge, and even up to the Benedict Bridge in the Patuxent River and the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in the Potomac River. There are plenty of dolphins to be seen around Southern Maryland.
The kind of dolphin you might see around here is the bottlenose dolphin. These animals are a lot like humans. They are highly intelligent, have good memories, live in
family units, communicate with one another, gestate their young for up to 12 months and feed and care for babies until they’re several years old. It seems to me the only difference besides living in water instead of on the land is they don’t pay taxes (not yet, that is).
While I’ve never seen any dolphins around here myself, my daughters were lucky enough to be on the Marchelle out of Bunky’s on Solomons Island during July last year when a pod of nearly 100 dolphins decided to visit. They surrounded the boat and both adult and very young dolphins put on a display of their jumping abilities in the waves, a phenomenon none of the children or crew who were onboard that
day will ever forget.
In the past, the number of dolphins and the frequency of their visits to the Chesapeake Bay and rivers were a mystery.
Aerial surveys, akin to the waterfowl survey performed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources annually, weren’t very effective. In fact, not a single dolphin was seen during the 2017 flight. But anecdotal evidence from locals indicated they were seeing dolphins, ranging from just one or two to huge pods with dolphins numbering close to 100.
Dr. Bailey and her team decided to enlist the public’s help to accurately track the number
of dolphins coming into the bay, where they go and how long they stay there. Hence the Chesapeake Dolphin Watch was launched in late June 2017, and during those six months alone nearly 900 dolphins were reported. Of those, almost 450 were verified with a description, photograph or video.
“It was incredible. We were really overwhelmed,” Dr. Bailey said of the public’s response.
The number of citizen scientists registered to report dolphins has increased from
1,500 users in 2017 to over 3,500 at the time of her presentation last week. I’m sure that number grew even more after everyone in the audience went home that night.
It’s very easy to report a dolphin sighting and the information it provides to scientists is “incredibly useful,” said Dr. Bailey, who added, “None of this information was even known two years ago.”
If you want to get involved, go to www.chesapeakedolphinwatch.org and create a profile. Or, if you prefer, you can get the app for your Apple or Android phone. You can adjust the date, time, or location of your report and even upload photographs or video.
If you want to go the extra mile, you can even use a drone to take aerial footage of dolphins, which is very helpful to the scientists studying their behavior.
To stay abreast of the latest dolphin sightings and upcoming events, the program has a frequently updated Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ ChesapeakeDolphinWatch) and Twitter account (@dolphinwatch_CB).
Chesapeake Dolphin Watch also employs two acoustic devices to record the dolphins’ sounds and communication. Scientists who analyze the data have been able to recognize individual dolphins by their signature whistle — the call they
produce when they meet other dolphins, much like a name.
As these recordings are collected, scientists hope to use the data to learn more about where specific dolphins go and why.
By combining information gleaned from both sightings and the acoustic recordings, scientists have already been able to answer the question, “Do more dolphins visit the bay in the summer months or are the increased sightings due to more people being outside in the summertime?”
Evidence from acoustic detectors have confirmed that fewer dolphins visit the bay during the winter. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t see one in the upcoming months.
Although they are more common in our area during the summer, there are still some dolphins in the more southerly part of the bay in the winter, just not as many. Keep your eyes peeled when you’re on or near the water, because you never know what you might see. And if you do see a dolphin, remember they are a species protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The law prohibits humans from getting too close, touching one or attempting to swim with or feed them. But you can always take a photo or video. And if you do, don’t forget to upload it to Chesapeake Dolphin Watch.