Dolphins do a lot for the Outer Banks, from tourism ambassadors to serving as sentinels

Playful dolphins spyhopping — sticking their heads up out of the water so they can look around — on a sunny day in Roanoke Sound. Whales and dolphins hold their heads out of the water in order to visually inspect the environment above the water line.

There are many things to love about the Outer Banks — the sandy dunes, the crashing waves, the laid-back vibes.

But one of the most delightful — and often unexpected — joys of the “Banks” is a chance sighting of an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how thrilling it was to spot dolphin while out on the water,” says Adele Monterro, who said a pod of dolphins frolicked around her kayak in the waters off the beach near Nags Head.

“It was incredible, joyful. It was as if they were playing with us. I honestly can’t even put into words how special it was. I love the Outer Banks — we come here every year, a few times a year — and this, without a doubt, is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Monterro has Jessica Taylor, president of the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, her staff and volunteers to thank for that close encounter with the nature’s most intelligent and social marine mammaks.

The nonprofit is dedicated to the conservation of bottlenose dolphins that make their way through the waters off the coast of North Carolina’s barrier islands.

Through painstaking research and “opportunistic photo-identification” of local dolphins, Taylor and her team serve as stewards and ambassadors of the Outer Banks dolphin population.

“We use a research technique known as photo-identification, in which the dorsal fins are photographed, cataloged and linked to information, such as geographic location and group size,” says Taylor, who earned a bachelor’s in marine sciences from Rutgers University and a master’s in coastal environmental management from Duke University.

All research is conducted aboard the nonprofit’s 17-foot research vessel, the Li’ili’i Nai’a, and Nags Head Dolphin Watch. Eco-tours to search for wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins also are available to the general public on the latter.

“Our research focuses on using the distinctive markings on the dorsal fins of bottlenose dolphins to identify and track individuals over time.”

Taylor has dedicated her adult life to dolphin research. For the last decade, she’s worked as a naturalist with the Nags Head Dolphin Watch. In 2008, Taylor incorporated Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research. She furthers the mission through educational presentations to schools and local organizations.

“We have local and broad goals for our research. Locally, we study population trends, habitat use, population health — through examination of skin lesions that occur on the body and dorsal fins — and behavior,” she says. “We also contribute our catalog to a master catalog of bottlenose dolphins that spans the east coast from New Jersey to Florida and includes the Bahamas, as well.”

The catalog, the Mid-Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Catalog, is used to examine population ranges and more recently, the effects of a die off on different populations along the east coast. Results are presented at regional and international scientific conferences.

This fall, Taylor will present the nonprofit’s most recent research on population trends at an international conference in Canada.

Dolphins as sentinels

The research conducted at the center is invaluable: Marine mammals may be exposed to pollutants, emerging pathogens and harmful algal biotoxins. Since they share the coastal environment with humans and consume the same food — dolphin eat a variety of fish, squid and shrimp — they also may serve as effective sentinels for public health problems.

“The Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research is the only local organization that focuses primarily on promoting the conservation of bottlenose dolphins in the Outer Banks,” Taylor says. “We have the only long-term research study on dolphins in this area; long-term studies are essential for understanding changes in the population and how dolphins use the Outer Banks environment.”

Just as the dolphins aid people by acting as sentinels for environmental concerns, so people can aid dolphins.

The 9th Annual Outer Banks Shrimp Cook-Off, a fundraiser for Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research is set for noon-3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4, at Ocean Boulevard Restaurant in Kitty Hawk. Tickets are $25 per person. and can be purchased at the restaurant or at Outer Banks Veterinary Hospital. All proceeds benefit the nonprofit.

“In the Outer Banks, so many businesses and fishermen are dependent upon the health of the marine environment,” she says. “Dolphin-watching is also an economic draw for local dolphin watch businesses and ocean front hotels.”

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