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.

The nonprofit uses 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.

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.

Locally, the organization studies population trends, habitat use, population health — through examination of skin lesions that occur on the body and dorsal fins — and behavior. It also contributes its catalog to the Mid-Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Catalog, a master catalog of bottlenose dolphins that spans the east coast from New Jersey to Florida and includes the Bahamas, as well.

The 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.

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. It boasts the only long-term research study on dolphins in the area, which is crucial for understanding changes in the population and how dolphins use the Outer Banks environment.

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