During the summer of 2013 we have had mass mortality events of dolphins along three coasts of the United States and the St. Lawrence River in Canada. For some background here is a portion of a chapter from my book, The Voice of the Dolphins.
Currently, August 2013, more than 200 dolphins have died in or near New Jersey. My coverage of the dolphin MME in 1987 began in New Jersey.
A New York Times article headed “Search Widening for Clues in Puzzle of Mounting Dolphin Deaths” reported that some one hundred dolphins had been found dead along the shores of New Jersey and the die-off was moving farther south. An increasing number of dolphins were being found stranded in Virginia, all of them with bronchial pneumonia, and virtually all of them dead. The article noted that hundreds of dolphins had almost certainly died in deep water and would never be counted. There was real panic along the Jersey shore. In the absence of reliable information, hypotheses blossomed among the citizens of beach towns. Was this a form of dolphin AIDS? Had deadly toxins escaped from a military facility nearby?
My film on whales was followed by a contract to do a one-hour special on dolphins, again for Audubon on Turner Broadcasting. I was to cover the wonders of dolphins in the wild but executive producer Chris Palmer told me in no uncertain terms that there was also a strong mandate from Ted Turner to hit conservation issues hard. The film, which was eventually titled If Dolphins Could Talk, gave me a chance to investigate the die-off. I flew to New Jersey.
As I began to look into this unfolding tragedy, I remembered visiting Atlantic City, a glorious stretch of beach, as a very young boy. The memory still evoked the smell of Coppertone and salt air. At that time and through the early encounters with the dolphins in the Bahamas the ocean remained a place of joy and innocence. Now, it appeared paradise might be slipping away.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) calls such die-offs “unusual mortality events,” or UMEs. This UME had first been detected by Bob Schoelkopf of the Brigantine Marine Mammal Stranding Network as early as April. Dolphins were washing ashore and beachgoers reported their eyes were stinging. Some even reported nausea. No one knew whether there was a connection to the dolphin deaths.
As May turned into June, the numbers of dead dolphins washing up on beaches had increased to the point that Schoelkopf called federal authorities. It was the beginning of a medical mystery with ramifications of the highest importance for dolphins and humans alike. While dolphins and small whales strand for a variety of reasons, nothing of this magnitude had ever been reported. The event was telling us something about the health of the oceans, and it was crucial we find out what the message was.
When it became clear that the dead dolphins on beaches were not isolated events, an interagency governmental task force was formed. Representatives from agencies such as the NMFS and state and local health departments swarmed the beaches looking for evidence.
Dr. Joseph Geraci, the man chosen to head the task force, known as the dolphin response team, was a well-known and highly respected marine pathologist from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. As the UME progressed, Dr. Geraci came under tremendous pressure to find what was killing the dolphins.
But few of the dead dolphins could be necropsied due to decomposition. Where necropsy was possible high levels of contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were found. So every cadaver recovered had to be treated as toxic waste and disposed of by a HazMat team. By August, dolphins were stranding on Virginia beaches and the total number of confirmed dead had reached six hundred.
When I interviewed Bob Schoelkopf at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, he told me, “We may be losing the entire near-shore population of bottlenose dolphins along our Atlantic Coast.” He listed their symptoms. All the dolphins had fluid in their chests, stomachs, and lungs. Most were emaciated, indicating that they hadn’t eaten in days, or even weeks. In addition, their mouths were lacerated, and on some, their skin was peeling. “All their internal organs were pathologic, with enlarged spleens and other abnormalities,” he said. Tissue samples from the Virginia dolphins were sent to the National Veterinary Service Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, one of the country’s leading facilities for studying animal pathology. As summer dissolved into fall and the die-off spread southward, no diagnosis was forthcoming.
To me, the die-off was an utterly horrifying experience. I imagined individual dolphins like Didi and Chopper first feeling that something was wrong, then growing sicker and more vulnerable to shark attack and finally dying in agony. And as stranded dolphins were found on beaches of the southeastern United States, I was haunted by the idea that the lethal agent might leap the Gulf Stream and infect the spotted dolphins I knew and loved in the Bahamas.
After completion of If Dolphins Could Talk, I continued my investigation of the UME, financed by a grant from the Center for Marine Conservation. During that inquiry, some very peculiar things happened.
I flew from California to New Jersey and drove along the eastern seaboard. During the fall of 1987, a top vet from the National Veterinary Service (NVS) pulled me aside at one of the many public meetings held in coastal communities to try to allay the fears of coastal dwelling humans. “I will only speak to you on the absolute condition that you do not associate my name with what I’m about to tell you,” he began.
I agreed but wondered why all the secrecy.
“What’s going on involves the fact that these dolphins are loaded with chemicals such as PCBs, pesticides, and other contaminants. The way these chemicals work is that they bio-accumulate up the marine food chain, and because they’re lipophilic [easily absorbable by fat] they can build to very high levels in dolphins, whales, and other marine mammals.”
The absolute levels of contamination in the water column are very low and safe, he went on to tell me. “The chemical companies that dump these contaminants think that by diluting the poisons they render them effectively harmless.” What they didn’t count on was the reverse process taking place as these chemicals are biomagnified up the food chain. The chemicals are absorbed by plankton that are eaten by tiny fish, which are then eaten by small fish, then larger fish, and ultimately by dolphins and humans. “By the time they reach apex predators—including us—they’re literally concentrated by factors of billions,” he said, his face contorted by the thought. The chemical companies’ theory of “dilution is the solution” did not contemplate the unfathomable ways of nature.