GULFPORT -- Baby dolphins, some barely three feet in length, are washing up along the Mississippi and Alabama shorelines at about 10 times the normal number for the first two months of the year, researchers are finding.
Seventeen young dolphins, either aborted before they reached maturity or dead soon after birth, have been collected on the coasts of the states in the past two weeks, both on the barrier islands and mainland beaches.
This is the first birthing season for dolphins since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; however, Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, said it’s too early to tell why they died.
“For some reason, they’ve started aborting or they were dead before they were born,” Solangi said. “The average is one or two a month. This year we have 17 and February isn’t even over yet.”
It’s the most that Solangi has seen in the two states and he’s been watching the Gulf for 30 years, recording dolphin data in Mississippi for 20. The institute has collected 13 infant dolphins in the last two weeks and three more on Monday along the Gulfport and Horn Island beaches.
Bill Walker, head of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources said his teams will work with the institute to collect the bodies of infant dolphins on Horn Island.
“Something is amiss,” Walker said Monday. “It could be oil-related. Who knows? Some of these mothers were probably exposed to oil. Whether it rendered them unable to carry their calves, we just don’t know.”
Early in the season
When a dolphin is born, its mother has the job of making sure it gets to the surface for its first breath of air.
If the baby is dead, the mother still tries. Over and over, sometimes for hours. She stays with the baby, not realizing fully that it is dead. She will hit it with her tail, grasp it, pull it and nudge it gently, hoping to get it to breathe.
“The more desperate the animal gets when the calf is not breathing, the more intense her behavior becomes,” Solangi said. “I’ve watched it.”
She goes into a frenzy trying to get the baby to respond and then stays with her dead infant, sometimes for hours before she lets it go.
That’s why some of the dead dolphin infants identified in the last two weeks have trauma to their bodies, he said.
“They didn’t die by being hit,” Solangi said.
The institute performed necropsies, animal autopsies, on two of them Monday and have data collected from the other bodies in the past two weeks.