While on a Jekyll Island beach, it can be a thrill to watch dolphins surfacing among the waves. But the circle of life comes with that, and time does not wait on man nor sea mammal, so the state Department of Natural Resources staff were called out last Friday to address a bottlenose dolphin carcass that washed ashore.
“It just looked like it had been chronically ill — it was emaciated and had skin lesions,” said DNR wildlife biologist Clay George. “That’s not uncommon when we find animals that have died. They’re typically not healthy. They’ve been suffering from something a lot of times.
“We do find ones that have died acutely from some sort of other issue, including, sometimes, some sort of human interaction like drowning in fishing gear or something like that, but that’s fairly rare. Most of the cases that we see are ones that die of natural causes.”
There is not a solid number for the population of dolphins locally.
“We have resident animals that live in our sounds, and they go out along the beaches, too,” George said. “But then there are migratory animals that we refer to as ‘coastal animals’ and they tend to be in slightly larger groups. They tend to be slightly larger animals themselves.”
The migratory dolphins move along the coast with the seasons. The deceased dolphin in this case may have been one of those because of its size and signs of migratory life, like nicks on its fins.
In April 2016, though, a study on estuarine dolphins discovered those living in and moving about in the Turtle River found they had suppressed immune systems.
A 2009 technical memorandum by the National Marine Fisheries Service noted as well, “A portion of the stock’s range is highly industrialized, and the Environmental Protection Agency has included sites within the Brunswick area on its National Priority List of hazardous waste sites. Specifically, the LCP Chemicals Site contaminated soils, groundwater and adjacent marsh with mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
“Mean total (PCB) concentrations from dolphins biopsied in the Turtle/Brunswick River Estuary were significantly higher than dolphins sampled in other areas of the world including other inshore estuarine waters along the Southeast coast of the United States. … (The Turtle/Brunswick River Estuary) area is known to be contaminated with this specific PCB mixture in soil and sediments, and the transport of these contaminants into the food web through invertebrate and vertebrate fauna has been documented.”
Once DNR and George Sea Turtle Center AmeriCorps staff recovered the dolphin last week, it was frozen and sent to Athens where it will be used in an instructional necropsy demonstration at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.