On Wednesday, September 20, 150 guests enjoyed a brilliant sunset, small bites from Zoe’s Kitchen and sampled Ship’s Wheel Hard Cider. The cherry on top? Three groups of dolphins swam by easily visible from the South Carolina Aquarium’s Harbor Overlook Terrace. Bottlenose dolphins are a mainstay in the lowcountry and were the focus of the opening Holland Lifelong Learning Series lecture.
Despite being the most common marine mammal in the Southeast, Dr. Patricia Fair, MUSC Research Professor, and Meghan Galipeau, South Carolina Aquarium Visitor Engagement Training Coordinator, noted that no other community takes so much pride in their local population. Residents of the lowcountry are always excited to see dolphin activity whether it’s in the harbor, on Folly Beach or in Shem Creek. To the untrained eye, the bottlenose dolphin population looks happy and healthy. However, ongoing research is showing us that this is not the case.
“What do popcorn, polar bears, and you have in common?” Fair asked. All carry perfluoroalkyl or PFA chemicals. These chemicals have added to life’s conveniences from stain-resistant clothing to nonstick frying pans. However, these chemicals also increase risk of cancers and other health problems.
On average, Americans wash their hands 8 times a day. Until recently, a chemical called triclosan was found in many hand soaps. Fair and her team were the first to document triclosan in marine mammals, in a study published in 2009. Triclosan, like many other chemicals, is passed through the breast milk of bottlenose dolphins to their young. Thankfully, just last year, triclosan was banned from hand soaps. There was no evidence that having this endocrine disrupting chemical in soap improved its function. Although triclosan has been removed from hand soap, it can still be found in items like cutting boards, cleaning supplies and cosmetics. These chemicals bio-accumulate and bio-magnify, which means that contaminants pass and grow in strength as they move to the next level of the food web. Bottlenose dolphins and humans have a shared ecosystem. As the top mammalian predators, we often enjoy the same seafood selections.
How do we know that dolphins are in trouble? Fair has led a photo identification study in the Charleston area since 1994. This study has helped scientists to understand the distribution, behavior and survival of local groups. Dolphins are identified based on the unique markings and shape of their dorsal fins – it’s almost like a fingerprint. A comprehensive health and risk assessment project has also been conducted on 360 dolphins in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon and in Charleston. Think of this study like the Mayo Clinic’s Health Assessment. Dolphins are weighed, have their blood tested, have an ultrasound and receive a full physical assessment. All of this is completed in an hour and the dolphin is tagged and released. Unfortunately, dolphins have been found with lobomycosis, or a fungal disease, papilloma, and other clinical abnormalities that would lead a medical professional to say, “Hey, we need to see you back here in two weeks.” Less than half of the dolphins at both sites were classified as “normal” health. Research shows that these diseases could be from environmental conditions and a compromised immune system.
Local bottlenose dolphins have chemical levels higher than any marine mammal and levels as high as occupationally exposed human workers. In the early 1900s, coal miners brought canaries into coal mines with them. The birds were more sensitive to toxic gases like carbon monoxide. They became sick before the miners, allowing for time to protect themselves or evacuate. Bottlenose dolphins are the modern day, 400-pound canary.
Zoos and aquariums are uniquely positioned as a “middle man” between scientists and the general public. Research indicates the public looks to zoos and aquariums as a place to connect with nature. Galipeau’s many years of experience with both wild dolphins and dolphins in human care provide her with a unique perspective on the human-dolphin relationship. 96% of visitors to the South Carolina Aquarium reported that they feel they are directly supporting ocean conservation. Through instilling humor and excitement into lessons and engagements, guests are able to retain more and leave with a true sense of power to save the 400-pound canary and other ocean residents.
In addition to chemical threats, one threat to our local dolphin population is “loving them to death.” Often, the public yearns to be close to dolphins and does more harm then good. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits harassing, feeding or approaching marine mammals like dolphins in the wild. Galipeau urged everyone to remain SMART when viewing and appreciating dolphins. Stay at least 50 yards from dolphins, Move away if dolphins show signs of disturbance, Always put your engine in neutral when dolphins are near, Refrain from feeding, touching, or swimming with wild dolphins, and Teach others to be dolphin SMART. Staff at the South Carolina Aquarium lead the way to connect people with water, wildlife, and wild places. Galipeau and colleagues strive to foster connections and create awareness.
The final question of the evening was, “What can I do to make a difference today?” In addition to continuing this conversation and remaining SMART when viewing dolphins, you can also make informed decisions when shopping. The Environmental Working Group has a user-friendly app that rates products. Detailed information about contaminants can be found on Tiny Footprint, Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, Our Stolen Future and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During the third season of the Holland Lifelong Learning Series, the South Carolina Aquarium will introduce you to experts in the field that live right in our backyard in a casual and relaxed atmosphere. We hope that you can join us on Monday, October 23rd, as we welcome activist artist Aurora Robson. Reserve your spot today!