Nature wise: Spring means the return of bottlenose dolphins to Roanoke Sound

Jessica Taylor, executive director of Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, took this photo of last summer of a female bottlenose dolphins and her newborn calf under NMFS Permit # LOC-21932.

As the spring approaches, we anticipate the return of bottlenose dolphins to Roanoke Sound. The Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research has monitored the bottlenose dolphin population in the Outer Banks since 2008 using photo-identification. By photographing the distinctive markings on the dolphin dorsal fins, we have identified and tracked more than 900 dolphins in Roanoke Sound.

The sound waters are important to the dolphins, providing both feeding and nursery habitat. Dolphins are known to feed preferentially on loud sound-producing fish, such as croaker, spot, or drum. The abundance of potential food in the sound during the warmer months likely attracts dolphins through Oregon Inlet. In addition to plentiful food, the shallow waters and lack of predators offer prime nursery habitat. Bottlenose dolphin calves stay close to their mothers and are dependent upon them for approximately 3-6 years. Shallow waters make it harder for predators to attack small vulnerable calves from below. Sightings of bull sharks, a dangerous predator of bottlenose dolphin, are typically rare in Roanoke Sound. Throughout the research season, the OBXCDR sees an abundance of mother and calf pairs in Roanoke Sound. If you are out on the water this spring, you may even be lucky enough to see a newborn bottlenose dolphin calf. Newborns are distinguished by their very small size, darker color, and vertical white stripes known as fetal folds along their sides.

While enjoying a day out on the water, it may also be possible to observe a sick or stranded dolphin. It is important to report these observations to the local marine mammal stranding response team as these sightings are very valuable to learn about diseases that spread through populations or general biology about the species. If a dolphin appears to be sick, entangled, or stranded on land, it is important to contact the stranding response team as soon as possible. On the beach or soundside from Nags Head to the Virginia state line, call the OBX Marine Mammal Stranding Network at (252) 455-9654. Photos are useful for stranding responders, as well.

With the warmer weather also comes excitement about more frequent outdoor activities, such as boating, fishing, and swimming leading to more people and dolphins out on the sound together. Here are some tips for the best ways to view dolphins from the water and ensure a great time is had by all:

• Keep a distance of at least 50 yards from wild bottlenose dolphins and use binoculars for the best viewing

• Limit your time observing the dolphins to 30 minutes

• Refrain from feeding or touching wild dolphins

• Put your boat’s engine into neutral if dolphins approach the boat and avoid making loud or sudden noises near the group

• Book a dolphin watch tour with a business that practices responsible viewing and promotes conservation

Happy dolphin watching this spring!

Biologist Jessica Taylor is executive director of the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research. Taylor has a bachelors of science degree in marine science from Rutgers University and a masters of coastal environmental management from Duke University. She has participated in several field research studies of bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, Stellar sea lions, and predatory fish in Florida, South Carolina, Australia, Alaska, and New Jersey. In 2008, she incorporated the nonprofit Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, which is dedicated to conservation of bottlenose dolphins in the Outer Banks.

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