EASTON — They’re back — dolphins in the Chesapeake Bay, that is.
Though not a wholly uncommon site in the summer, seeing a dolphin, much less a pod of them, in the Chesapeake Bay can be an exciting experience for visitors and natives alike.
“They just go nuts,” said Capt. John Marrah of Patriot Cruises in St. Michaels when asked how his customers react to seeing dolphins on the Miles River.
“They’re coming right up to the boat. We stop the boat. We put it in neutral. The pod stops … and they swim under the boat. They swim around it,” he said. “It’s a stunning experience for the folks on the boat, and frankly, it’s a stunning experience for me.”
According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, dolphins visit the lower and mid-Bay in summer, sometimes being seen as far north as the Baltimore Harbor, the Chester River and Washington, D.C.
Bottlenose dolphins are found mostly in warm, salty water, but can feed in fresh waters for a short period of time, according to the program. The dolphins likely are coming up the Bay in search of food.
Marrah said he saw the same pod of about 50 dolphins on two different days.
Marrah captains the Patriot, which takes visitors to St. Michaels on a 10½-mile round trip up the Miles River.
On the first day, he saw the pod first thing in the morning about 50 feet off his home dock outside the St. Michaels Harbor.
When he took the Patriot out that day, he saw them again in the river off Maiden Point Farms. Then, later that day, he saw the pod of dolphins swimming around paddle boarders in the river. The next day, he saw the pod again, but near the Oak Creek Bridge, and “that’s when I realized how big the pod was. It was just huge,” Marrah said.
Marrah said he has seen more dolphins this year than in past years, but they have come to the Bay later than usual.
“Normally, if we see them, we see them in small pods in late May, early June, and that’s normally when the big fish come,” he said. “We had such a cold May with so much rain, it just slowed everything down. They (big fish) didn’t get here until about two weeks ago, and about four or five days after they got here, boom, we had this huge pod of dolphins in the Miles River.”
The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science invites everyone who spends time on or near the Chesapeake Bay to report dolphin sightings with a new online tracking system.
Chesapeake DolphinWatch allows users to mark the location of their dolphin sightings on a map of the Chesapeake and its tributaries so scientists can better understand where the dolphins are and where they go. The online tracker is accessible at www.chesapeakedolphinwatch.org.
“We’d like to increase people’s awareness of the dolphins and collect data at the same time,” said Helen Bailey, a scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. She specializes in studying the movements of marine mammals. “Whether you’re at home, whether you have a community pier, you live near the water or you go out on the water, we need your eyes on the sea telling us where are the dolphins.”
Bottlenose dolphins frequently are spotted in the Chesapeake Bay during the summer with reports of them leaping in the air or bow riding boats. However, little is known about how often dolphins actually come into the Bay, how long they spend there, what areas of the Bay they are using and why.
“Right now, we have such scarce information. This is really the first time we are systematically recording this,” Bailey said.
“We are hearing anecdotally that dolphins are becoming more frequent visitors to the Chesapeake Bay, but we really don’t have much information at all about where they are going and when,” she said. “The more eyes we have on the water the better to report dolphin sightings. We think that citizens can make very good citizen scientists.”
The online tracker has four main sections. There is a map page where users can see all the reported sightings and tap to report their own sighting. Users can enter the location where they saw the dolphins or have the device use the current location to mark the sighting. Users will be able to view how many users are accessing the tracker and the dolphin sightings in real time. There is also an information page with responsible wildlife viewing guidelines and to learn more about dolphins and the Chesapeake Bay.
“We are excited to be using new technology that will enable everyone to help us understand more about dolphins,” said Tom Miller, director of UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. “Citizen science, such as the DolphinWatch tracker, is becoming more and more important and helps connect everyone to our work to protect, restore and sustain the Bay.”
Bailey said changes in climate, improvements in water quality and improvements in fish stocks upon which dolphins feed could be factors in a surge in dolphin sightings. She already has a few underwater microphones in the Patuxent and Potomac rivers where they meet the Chesapeake Bay listening for the echolocation click sounds dolphins make. The data collected through Chesapeake DolphinWatch will help inform where to put more devices to help understand where the dolphins are going and where are feeding.
“People have been really excited to tell us about their sightings, but there was no easy way to report them before,” Bailey said. “Dolphins are very iconic, and they are in our backyard.”
More information on the DolphinWatch program is available on the UMCES website at www.umces.edu/dolphinwatch. Tag your photos of dolphins to @dolphinwatch_cb on Instagram.
Funding for ChesapeakeDolphinWatch.org was provided by the Chesapeake Bay Trust.