MISSISSIPPI SOUND – Megan Broadway sits on the bow of the Dolphin Rescue II on Tuesday, bundled in cold-weather gear and headed for Horn Island.
She is 26, with long brown hair pulled into a ponytail. She has an extra hairband on her wrist and a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with her.
A research assistant, she has studied dolphins in the northern Gulf for three years. Today, she will oversee a crew cutting tissue from the backs of four baby dolphin carcasses that washed ashore on the island. This trip is one of many recently, as the bodies continue to wash ashore. The extra work is overwhelming.
She eats part of her lunch early, on the way out. It’s not just a sanitation issue or that dolphins and humans share some diseases. She won’t want to eat after what she will do, dealing with the tiny carcasses.
Her crew is made up of another research assistant, an intern and a volunteer. Megan has a map with GPS locations for the four small dolphins. On her clipboard is a list of tissues to take – skin, blubber, muscle, organs – if the bodies aren’t too decomposed.
“On our coast we don’t usually get the really fresh ones,” she says. The water is warm and decomposition begins quickly.
It’s hard to remember totals or exact locations of the babies picked up along the Mississippi and Alabama coastlines recently, there have been so many. Her boss at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies calls it an explosion this month, really in just the past 10 days. And this is well before the birthing season goes into full swing.
“We had so many called in yesterday,” she says, almost absentmindedly. “We were getting calls all day.”
Because there have been so many dead, she thinks this trend will continue through May, during the months when dolphins normally give birth. It is called the stranding season, because birth is a tricky process for dolphins and often in the northern Gulf a calf or two washes up among the adults that die. But in the last six weeks there have been 31 calves dead in Mississippi and Alabama, where Broadway works.
Those who are watching the statistics rise and the data come in call it an anomaly. Some look to the 2010 BP oil spill, when these babies were in the womb. Broadway has no comment.
At the first dolphin
The logo on Broadway’s shirt is a white dolphin tail, yellow letters and a red cross.
She is a first responder of sorts.
With GPS in hand, she leads the way to the first small body on the Gulf side of Horn Island – blue-green insides, mouth agape, partially buried in the sand.
The top fin is intact, patches of skin are gone, the eyes are gone, teeth exposed. Its abdomen is opened because it is partially eaten.
“We call it scavenged,” she says.
It’s a newborn. It still has its fetal folds, the light-colored marks on its skin from being folded in its mother’s womb.
Broadway wants pictures of the odd marks around the neck. Where there might have been light-colored tissue the skin is blue-green like a bruise, with clumps of round, black spots.
She and her crew estimate a weight. They cut into the back.
They carve black squares of skin and pink cubes of blubber. Some goes into vials, some is wrapped in aluminum foil. They are careful not to touch anything that will contain the samples.
This one is not fresh, Broadway declares. But they try to sort out and harvest some of the organs. The heart is a bright red.
They don’t take it. It’s not in good enough condition.
Hedge clippers for the jaw bone. Age can be determined by how well the teeth have developed. They bag all the equipment, tie orange tape around the tail and leave the carcass. Two of the others are more than a mile away.
Broadway’s crew is mixed group.
At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, workers are cross-trained, so boat captains can volunteer for stranding missions and interns from Australia handle tissue retrieving.
“At IMMS you can do a lot of things,” Broadway says. “It’s not so compartmentalized.”
The second carcass is good enough to take back. It’s small and has just begun to bloat. It is just under 2 feet, 10 inches long.
At that size it is premature, possibly stillborn.
It’s a male.
The crew washes a ruler off in the surf as, 100 yards out, a pod of dolphins surfaces. Broadway doesn’t notice. She stays on task.
The crew catches a lift on an ATV that belongs to the BP oil-cleanup teams. As they ride to the last two infant carcasses, a fellow researcher points out dolphins in the surf.
Crew member Rhiannon Blake, 24, calls out as she sees a pod of bottlenose breaking the water.
“Look, there’s a calf doing aerials,” she says.
“I’m not kidding. It was. Teeny, teeny.”
A tricky process
Dolphins can give birth at the age of 6, but they usually don’t until they are 8 years old. Some females have given birth as old as 48.
Florida researchers have seen that twice. And one dolphin is still alive at the age of 61. They know by the growth rings in her teeth.
They have learned that less than half of the first-born dolphins survive in the wild. The environmental contaminates combine with the fat in the mothers’ milk and transfer to the baby.
That’s the case with many mammals. Or the mothers just don’t have the experience they need to protect a young one.
Second- and third-borns have a better chance, says Randy Wells with the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla.
He is a senior conservation scientist, one of a group that has been studying dolphins in the Sarasota Bay for 40 years.
In 2005, a red tide off the coast killed the dolphins’ fish supply and the next year, calves died in record numbers, unable to catch enough fish to feed themselves.
In 2010, before the BP oil spill, dolphins, turtles and manatees were dying along the coastline in the northern Gulf when the cold winter’s water temperature dropped.
Neither of those scenarios seems to apply to the recent deaths along the Mississippi and Alabama coastlines. There have been no red tides reported nearby and the institute’s crews aren’t finding other species dying from cold water temperatures.
What they’re finding is dead babies in record numbers.
Back at the lab
The preemie Broadway and her crew have brought to the mainland will undergo an necropsy by a veterinarian.
Like the others on the beach, it likely never reached the point of drinking milk and certainly not chasing its own food. Dolphin babies stay with their mothers and nurse until they are in their second year.
On the dock, Broadway’s director stays with reporters answering questions.
He talks about how the findings will be processed, what labs will be looking for – including hydrocarbons and other chemicals from crude oil.
He talks of the possibility of a virus or an infection making these animals unable to have calves that will survive.
He says it will take time to put together the pieces of this puzzle for answers.
Later, in a telephone interview about how the deaths relate to the oil spill, he says he doesn’t know.
“What do I think?” he says.
“I can’t think. I’m a scientist. I look at the facts. If I start thinking, I become a politician.”
Broadway returns to her office down the hall, before she leaves, hair wet from following a strict decontamination protocol.