While several dozen dolphins seen in the Chesapeake Bay have captured the imagination of Eastern Shore residents for two weeks, today the marine patrol is joining the watch.
After boaters reported seeing gashes on two dolphins Sunday, the state Department of Natural Resources marine police agreed to watch for the mammals during regular patrols and check on their condition.
Dr. Cindy Driscoll, a DNR veterinarian, said she will look for the dolphins today near the mouth of the Choptank River where they werelast seen yesterday.
Residents and marine workers have been surprised by 30 to 50 dolphins swimming in and near the Choptank and Little Choptank rivers, much higher up the bay than they are ordinarily accustomed to frolic.
Most people who have seen the dolphins said they looked well and didn't appear to be in trouble, said Dr. Driscoll, who is helping to organize a regional network for reporting and responding to stranded marine mammals. As late as yesterday, employees of the Horn Point Environmental Laboratories saw a group of dolphins in the morning and again at noon and did not see any injured dolphins.
On Sunday afternoon, however, Dawn Sutton and Clark Bayne of Church Creek came upon the dolphins while out in a motorboat. Ms.Sutton said about 30 dolphins came within 10 feet of the couple's boat, two with gashes on their back that were not swimming with the rest. "They were kind of isolated from the other dolphins," she said. The other dolphins "kept circling them to protect them."
Mr. Bayne only reported the incident to the Department of Natural Resources yesterday after reading about the dolphin sightings in a local newspaper, Ms. Sutton said.
Dr. Driscoll said that Mr. Bayne at first said that "two older dolphins had chunks taken out of them that were fairly fresh," but later described the cuts as marks that could have been made by a person's fingernail. The latter description may indicate teeth marks made during play that are not uncommon on dolphins, she said.
However, the gashes could have been caused by an outboard motor propeller, fishing nets, a brush against a nail in a piling or even a predator such as a shark, said Dr. Eric May, coordinator of fish health and disease programs for the DNR fisheries division.
If the markings turn out to be more scratches than gashes, the dolphins are likely not in any trouble, experts say. They can move between fresh and salt water.
The only fear for their safety is if they get into narrow bodies of water where there is a greater danger of accidents or beaching.
James G. Mead of the Smithsonian Institution and Valerie Chase of the National Aquarium in Baltimore have speculated that the gray dolphins, believed to be American bottlenose, were simply following a school of smaller fish that brought them to the Choptank.