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Lagoon dolphins to be featured on ABC show Saturday

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of October 4, 2012)
Photo of Jeff Corwin.

The world-wide importance of the Indian River Lagoon and marine research conducted here will be highlighted on Saturday when ABC airs the season premiere of “Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin.”

Corwin, an Emmy-award winning naturalist, has hosted TV series and specials on MSNBC, Disney Channel and the Animal Planet network, gaining a wide following among nature and adventure lovers.

He was in Vero Beach this summer to film part of the groundbreaking dolphin health and risk assessment study, called HERA for short, conducted by scientists from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and other marine research institutions each year.

“This is the first time our work at Harbor Branch will be featured on a nationally-syndicated television show of this type,” said Stephen McCulloch, director of HERA and HBOI’s Marine Mammal Rescue Program.

Filming took place under a special authorization from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

McCulloch, co-director Dr. Juli Goldstein and their colleagues and volunteers carry out their dolphin research and rescue activities under a permit from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service that normally prohibits any kind of commercial exploitation of scientific activities.

“We are delighted to have the opportunity to work with Jeff Corwin and his colleagues from the Georgia Aquarium on this project,” said McCulloch. “It fits perfectly with our mission of public education and helps us get the word out about the importance of marine mammal research to ocean and human health.”

HERA began in 2003 and has included detailed medical examinations of more than 200 lagoon dolphins.

This year’s HERA fieldwork began June 18 and finished June 27. Despite wild weather along the margins of Tropical Storm Debbie, McCulloch and his team – which included scientists from as far away as Scotland and Australia – caught and examined 18 dolphins.

“We had 14 boats and 85 to 90 people on the water each day,” said McCulloch.

After a day of preparation and logistical coordination, Corwin and his film crew spent two days on the water with McCulloch.

While cameras rolled, bottlenose dolphins were corralled with float nets and brought aboard what Goldstein calls “a shaded floating examine room.”

Researchers took blood, urine, feces and blubber sample as well as stomach contents, swabs from blow holes and other samples.

“We numb them with anesthetic before taking blubber samples,” said Goldstein. “It is similar a doctor doing outpatient surgery.”

There is a strong link between Harbor Branch and the Georgia Aquarium, which is the largest aquarium in the world and a center of marine mammal research.

Dr. Greg Bossart, director of animal care and research at the Georgia Aquarium, is a former HBOI researcher who holds the NOAA permit and oversees HERA research.

Corwin wanted to feature HERA on his show because it is a cutting-edge scientific endeavor and because people are deeply interested in bottlenose dolphins, which Bossart calls “charismatic megafauna.”

“What we are doing is a very rare thing,” McCulloch said. “It is one of only three programs of its kind in the world. It is the pinnacle of dolphin research.”

Corwin and his crew covered their own expenses on the mission but did not have to pay for the film rights.

The payoff for McCulloch and his colleagues comes in the form of increased awareness about problems faced by marine mammals and the link between dolphin and human health.

“HERA began as a dolphin health study when I was at Harbor Branch,” said Bossart, who is still an adjunct faculty member at the institute. “It has evolved to look at ecosystem health and the health of humans. Because of their site fidelity, the dolphins provide a very good barometer of ecosystem health. They are like the canary in the coal mine.”

Results from tests done on samples taken during this year’s examination are not in yet, but based on preliminary observations the 400-pound canaries are faltering due to a variety of human pollutants and other environmental stressors.

“Eight of the 18 dolphins we examined this year had visible signs of disease,” said Goldstein, a veterinarian and Florida Atlantic University assistant professor who oversees the medical exams.

“There is drastically more illness and disease than there would be among a healthy dolphin population. It is extremely concerning for the sake of the dolphins and perhaps even more so for us because they are a sentinel species on this coast. If they are getting sick, we are next.”

“Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin: Dolphins of the Indian River Lagoon” will air at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday on ABC stations.