Sounds from the Dolphins

On the last few tours we have had people asking about dolphin sounds. Usually when we are on top of the water  in the local environment we do not hear the dolphins talk like they do at Sea World or on the flipper show. If you were to put your head under the water with the dolphins close by you will hear a lot of clicking sounds in the water. They uses these sounds to find food and communicate with each other. The study of dolphin sounds is being studied just outside of Jarvis Creek across the I.C.W. at the May River. Even probably hearing a few of the dolphins we see who come into Jarvis Creek for feeding.


More on the story from the Island Packet…

Researcher studying the sounds of area’s waters

“It sounds like Rice Krispies!” University of South CarolinaBeaufort assistant professor Eric Montie says as he listens to the hydrophone dangling off the side of his boat in the May River.

A man listening for dolphins.Beneath the cackle of snapping shrimp, Montie is waiting for the sound of the dolphin that just took a dive several feet away.

Its whistle, as unique as a human voice, will be matched with the photograph of its fin that Montie’s student and intern, USCB senior Michael Powell, snapped just before the animal disappeared below the surface.

The sighting and acoustic survey of the bottle-nosed dolphin population in the May River, Calibogue Sound and Calibogue Creek is part of a regular day for Montie, who was hired at the university in January with a grant designed to expand biomedical and ecological research.

The grant awards $1 million over the next five years to the university, paying for research and summer stipends for students such as Powell to work alongside their professors.

“We’re trying to grow the program to meet the needs of the region, particularly with regard to the environment and ecology,” said Harvey Varnet, USCB’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. “We also want to grow our students and get them excited through hands-on work — it takes what you learned in the classroom and crystallizes it.”


With the university’s new emphasis on coastal research, Montie, who has worked as a marine mammal field biologist at the National Ocean Service in Charleston, also is launching an acoustics program to study fish and dolphin communication in local estuaries. Montie’s doctorate from the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is in biological oceanography, and he has a post-doctoral degree in bio-acoustics from the University of South Florida.

With dolphins, he listens for vocalizations and echo-location clicks that help the animals find food.

He also records noises made by red drum, black drum and spotted sea trout because they are among the dolphins’ favorite meals.

The fish have a sonic muscle that beats against their swim bladder to attract mates. Figuring out where the fish spawn may give researchers a clue about dolphin life cycles, including population bursts, Montie said.

Eventually, Montie will submerge acoustic recorders at biological hot spots in the water that can also take snapshots of conditions — including salinity and temperature — every five minutes for six months.

For now, he and Powell cruise the estuaries about once a week in his boat, cutting the motor when they spot dolphins so they can be photographed and recorded. They’ve already named a few. “Stumpy,” for one, is recognizable by the gouges in his dorsal fin.

“They’re not very cooperative,” Powell said, holding the camera to his side as a dolphin that was just next to the boat fails to resurface nearby.

The researchers run into that sort of behavior a lot.

When approached by the boat, most of the dolphins begin “chuffing” — a kind of snort from their blowhole indicating they don’t want to be watched, Montie said.


Montie is by now well-acquainted with dolphin behavior.

With funding from the Georgia Aquarium, Montie and Powell recently traveled to Florida’s Indian River Lagoon for a health assessment of bottle-nosed dolphins there. Montie particularly wanted to test for hearing loss, which may be related to pollutants that interfere with the dolphin’s thyroid development.

Dolphins are “the canary in the coal mine” when it comes to toxins in the water, Montie said — and their hearing is a crucial part of how they navigate and feed.

But it’s about more than dolphins.

“It also has a human health concept,” Montie said. “We eat the same fish, so we’re exposed to the same chemicals. What happens to a dolphin may eventually happen to people when it comes to pollutants.”

His current and past research might also explain why three times as many dolphins have been stranded in Beaufort and Charleston counties this year than in a typical year.

The cause of the 32 strandings in South Carolina from February to May of this year won’t be known for some time, according to Wayne McFee, National Ocean Service marine mammal stranding program scientist.

Most of the remains were so decomposed, testing will take years and, even then, may not yield answers.

McFee has talked to Montie about the possibility of operating a marine mammal strandings program at USCB.

Coastal Carolina University near Myrtle Beach currently runs the stranding network, and McFee thinks USCB could work in Beaufort County to supplement NOAA’s limited, Charleston-based staff.

For now, Montie is consumed with growing the coastal research opportunities for USCB students.

“Because why not?” he said. “It’s in our backyard.”


DOT plans for longer, wider bridge over Jarvis Creek

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It looks like we will have a new bridge crossing Jarvis Creek on the way shortly after some hearings and talks. The bridge (the crossing of Spanish Wells road over the creek) is in the upper part of Jarvis Creek. On the other side of the bridge from us (Jarvis Creek Water Sports) is the Honey Horn Plantation, part of the Coastal Discovery Museum.  On tours or when renting, the bridge is used as a good turn around point / reference in the creek. It takes an average of an 1 hour round trip paddle from our dock to the bridge and back in the main channel. Now that can be extended or shortened on time depending on the paddler and / or group with possible optional routes. In order to get under the bridge to the other side you have to have the tides planned correctly and avoid bridge obstacles. It is a nice little paddle with a narrow curvy path as you paddle along up around the norther part of the creek by Honey Horn. But we do advise against adventuring under the bridge for safety reasons from bridge obstacles and the unfriendliness it gives to paddlers  We do not have any say on bridge design since that goes to the greater benefit of the mass as in letting vehicles cross the creek. We do hope that the new one which is in design will be a little more friendly for paddlers to get under-neath to explore the upper part of the creek as well as be a safety improvement for both paddlers below and the vehicles crossing above it.

The story below from the Island Packet…


DOT plans for longer, wider bridge over Jarvis Creek

State transportation officials have drawn plans for a longer, wider bridge along Spanish Wells Road over Jarvis Creek to replace the current crossing, which has been deemed structurally deficient.

Wooden underpinnings of the 56-year-old bridge appear rotted and covered in barnacles.

S.C. Department of Transportation officials plan to unveil the drawings and solicit feedback from residents from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Grace Community Church at 450 Spanish Wells Road.

The DOT plans to build a bridge east of the current one, program manager Alan Matienzo said.

Plans call for the 75-foot-long bridge to be replaced with a longer span that adds paved shoulders and parapet walls on either side of the bridge’s two, 12-foot-wide lanes.

Shifting the bridge to the east, on the opposite side of an existing boardwalk, and lengthening it should mean less disturbance to wetlands and creek beds, Matienzo said.

About 80 percent of the estimated $4.5 million project would be paid for with federal highway dollars and the rest with state funds, he said.

The DOT still needs to buy some land for the project, including right of way to connect the new bridge to Spanish Wells Road.

Construction is expected to begin in winter 2013 and last eight to 12 months, Matienzo said.

“There should be no major impacts to traffic,” he said of the bridge’s construction. “We’ll maintain the traffic going over the current bridge as the new one is being constructed, until toward the end, when we tie the new bridge into Spanish Wells Road.”

Drivers are still safe driving over the current bridge, Matienzo said.”There is no need for the public to worry that anything is going to happen to the bridge for years come, but it is to the point where it needs to be replaced,” he said. “The wooden piles the substructure is built on top of are sound for existing traffic.”

Sea turtle nests might set records, including first leatherback recorded on Hilton Head…

During the last few weeks while out paddling in Jarvis Creek, we occasionally see little heads pop up from the water check us out and head back below. The turtles will occasionally swim around in the creek but not land due to the soft mud. So we only usually see the head-boppers in the creek. While they were in the creek they were probably snacking on the local environment while they waited for night to go to the beach side of the island to nest.

* Following From Wikipedia* The loggerhead sea turtle is omnivorous, feeding mainly on bottom dwelling invertebrates, such as gastropods, bivalves, and decapods. The loggerhead has a greater list of known prey than any other sea turtle. Other food items include sponges, corals, sea pens, polychaete worms, sea anemones, cephalopods, barnacles, brachiopods, isopods, insects, bryozoans, sea urchins, sand dollars, sea cucumbers, starfish, fish (eggs, juveniles, and adults), wrasses, hatchling turtles (including members of its own species), algae, and vascular plants.[46] During migration through the open sea, loggerheads eat jellyfish, floating molluscs, floating egg clusters, squid, and flying fish.[7]


From the Island Packet story below.

Sea turtle nests might set records, including first leatherback recorded on Hilton Head…

With more than a month remaining in sea-turtle nesting season, reports of loggerhead nests are on pace to break records for some areas of Beaufort County.

And already, leatherback turtle nests have been documented on Hilton Head Island for the first time.

The largest sea turtles, endangered leatherbacks, reach lengths of more than 6 feet and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds.

Some of the tracks left by the leatherbacks’ crawl were wider than volunteers are tall, according to Amy Tressler of the Coastal Discovery Museum, who manages Hilton Head’s Sea Turtle Protection Program.

Leatherback eggs are the size of racquetballs, far larger than the golf ball-sized eggs of loggerheads, the area’s most common sea turtle.

“The leatherback is a huge highlight to the season over here,” Tressler said.

Last year, Hilton Head had a record 239 loggerhead nests. This year, volunteers and conservationists on daily dawn beach patrol have already tracked 209, Tressler said.

The leatherback, which can nest several times in a season, left three nests.

Leatherbacks typically nest south of Hilton Head — in Florida or the Caribbean — but occasionally swim farther north, said DuBose Griffin, sea turtle coordinator with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

It’s likely that the same turtle laid another nest at Hunting Island State Park, which recorded its first leatherback nest last year, although the eggs were unfertilized.

Hunting Island, however, isn’t likely to break records this year. Volunteers have found 41 nests, compared to last year’s 111.

On Harbor Island, project leader Fran Nolan reported 51 loggerhead nests. With a record 66 nests reported in 1999, Nolan said, volunteers are placing bets on whether this will be the top year.

On Fripp Island, 45 nests have been found, already beating last year’s total of 25, according to Janie Lackman, the island’s turtle patrol leader. Strict enforcement of a rule barring items from being left on the beaches overnight “makes our mamas very happy,” Lackman said.

In the past decade, the island’s best year was 2000, with 54 nests.

The “really promising” start to the season extends to beaches statewide, with more than 2,450 nests so far, Griffin said. Nest sites are so dense in some areas that not all reports are in yet, Griffin said.

Last year’s statewide total through October was 3,150 nests.

Griffin sees that as a sign that a decades-long nesting decline has leveled off, with increased conservation and surveying efforts a likely factor.

The first eggs on Beaufort County beaches were found in May, meaning hatchlings will soon emerge. Volunteers begin monitoring for hatchlings at 50 days after nesting. The average incubation time is 60 days, but hot, dry weather can hasten the process, Tressler said.

Turtle season also means it’s crucial that people turn off oceanfront lights, which is required on Hilton Head Island from 10 p.m. to dawn, Tressler said.

The lights cause the hatchlings to crawl away from the ocean and prevent nesting turtles from coming ashore. Shining flashlights or taking flash photographs of turtles at night is also a federal offense, Tressler said.

“One of the most important ways locals or visitors here can protect turtles is keep the beaches dark,” Tressler said.

Environmental officials warn against harmful dolphin feeding…

While Kayaking in Jarvis Creek at the right tide, we get to see the dolphins feed naturally in their environment. Some times they fish alone and other times they fish as a family working together. Dolphins will usually fish by thrash feeding. This is where they may work together and group the fish to a desired shallow side of the creek and whip the tail around  just below and close to the surface of the water sending large splashes around. This sends a shock wave through the water which stuns the fish for a few seconds and allows the dolphin(s) to grab some fish. The other method they do and we occasionally see in Jarvis Creek with lucky timing is “strand feeding.” This is where the dolphin(s) will chase fish to the shallows and sometimes send a wave with them as the dolphin(s) slide up in the mud of the creek embankment grabbing fish and then sliding back into the water.

It is beautiful to enjoy nature in its own environment, doing its own thing on its own terms… and that is what we get to share in when exploring Jarvis Creek.

Story from the Island Packet below.

Environmental officials warn against harmful dolphin feeding…

Each summer, an illegal and harmful trend returns to Beaufort County — the feeding of dolphins in the wild.

Wayne McFee, wildlife biologist with the National Ocean Service, said the practice is reported throughout coastal South Carolina but is “extremely bad” in the Hilton Head Island area, where dolphins are often found frolicking in Broad Creek.

Feeding dolphins violates federal law and puts them at risk of being hit by boat propellers. It changes their foraging behavior and causes them to beg, and it leads to health problems when they are fed things like dead fish and human food, McFee said.

“It’s also a hazard to humans because animals being fed can get aggressive,” McFee said.

Guides with local eco-tours — the “eyes on the water” who usually call in violations — have recently spotted people feeding dolphins from boats, said Al Segars, veterinarian with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

McFee said it appears incidents of dolphin-feeding will be on par with the yearly average of five to 10.

The chance of law enforcement catching people feeding dolphins, however, is slim, Segars said.

The National Ocean Service forwards reports of illegal feedings to the National Marine Fisheries service, which has only has a few enforcement officers based in Charleston, McFee said.

Segars believes public awareness is the key to reducing the practice. Segars said DNR has had workshops asking eco-tour guides to help educate visitors and report violations.

“You get somebody from Kansas who went to SeaWorld that one time, and they probably don’t know you shouldn’t feed the dolphins,” Segars said.


Also in the same paper, a sad additional dolphin story.

Uptick in dolphin strandings worries marine scientists

More than 30 dolphins mysteriously washed up dead in the Lowcountry this spring. The big spike in strandings alarms federal researchers enough that they are conducting extensive tests on the remains.

From late February through early May, 32 bottlenose dolphins stranded, mostly in Charleston and Beaufort counties. That’s three times as many as normally would be expected during those months.

“Right now we don’t know why they died,” said Wayne McFee, National Ocean Service marine mammal stranding program scientist. “Most of the animals we’ve had have been really decomposed.” The testing will take months, he said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has designated the strandings as a “unusual mortality event,” because they were unexpected and involved a relatively large number of animals. The designation gives forensic researchers funding to do detailed testing of remains, because of potential environmental and human health threats.

A dolphin that dies because of contamination or a virus can be bad news for people who live along the coast. Because the sea mammals are so close to humans in some ways, they are a prime “canary in the coal mine” of trouble in the water.

Marine mammal strandings along the South Carolina coast tend to spike in the spring and fall each year, when migrating animals are on the move. But in the past few years, strandings have spiked in mid-winter. The most likely explanation is the same winter cold snaps that led to mass bait fish kills along the beaches.

The cold depletes the shallows of food — fish schools for the dolphin.

Dolphins that already are sick can’t catch enough to sustain themselves, so they weaken and gradually die, sometimes of pneumonia.

More than 10,000 bottlenose dolphin are thought to roam along the Southeast coast. Some 40 dolphins strand on South Carolina beaches each year.


An average of 52 marine mammals get stranded each year in South Carolina:

  • 80% are bottlenose dolphins
  • 10% are pygmy and dwarf sperm whales
  • Most live strandings are single animals that are sick and dying.
  • Most animals must be euthanized.
  • 25% of bottlenose dolphins strand with evidence of human interaction, usually entanglements or ingested plastics.Source: South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Coastal Carolina University