OCEAN CITY - Conor Kaczmarek, 5, spied them first. Peering through a pair of too-big binoculars, he picked up the tell-tale jump and splash of "killer dolphins," two adults and two young mammals, about 500 yards offshore.
His mother, Susan Kaczmarek, quickly corrected the young spotter, trying to explain that he might be thinking of killer whales. But Conor knows what he knows. After all, he had just seen what surely must have been a killer jellyfish, a curiosity the size of a garbage can lid that washed up on the beach at 40th Street.
"We try to make every trip a little educational," said Susan Kaczmarek.
Staff members from the National Aquarium and its Marine Animal Rescue Program weren't about to argue with the home-schooled first-grader or his mom.
They were depending on the Kaczmarek family, who live in Columbia, and about a dozen other folks to stand watch on the beach near the Ocean City Convention Center for nearly three hours yesterday to help them with the annual Maryland dolphin count.
Scanning a hazy horizon and gently rolling surf, the volunteers were looking for signs of bottlenose dolphins, the species that are the stars of the aquatic showcase at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.
For 41-year-old David Bruno of Baltimore, the program gave him a little time to himself, away from "your basic family vacation."
"I'm pretty much your lazy kind of volunteer; I just give money," Bruno said. "When I saw something about this in the local paper, I signed up. This has kind of been like hunting, or waiting for anything. They don't come out on cue."
Staff members and volunteers gathered in small groups every 20 blocks or so along 26 miles of Maryland coast, from Assateague to the Delaware line. As it turned out, yesterday wasn't the best of days for dolphin-spotting. No one seemed to mind.
"We have 65 volunteers and about 20 staff people from the aquarium at three sites on Assateague and another nine sites in Ocean City," said Megan Broberg, a spokeswoman for the aquarium's conservation office. "Then there are three boats, including one Coast Guard boat, and a helicopter. We've got it covered, even if the dolphins aren't in close to shore."
The annual count of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins began in 1989, after scientists became alarmed at the deaths of at least 750 of the marine animals along the East Coast in 1987 and 1988. All apparently succumbed to a virus similar to influenza in humans.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service has classified the bottlenose population as on the verge of being threatened or endangered.
Since 1989, annual counts have helped pinpoint the dolphin population along the Atlantic Coast at about 15,000.
The dolphins migrate with the weather, ranging from as far south as Florida to as far north as Long Island, Broberg said.
"This year, we might see fewer dolphins because the water temperature isn't as warm as normal, maybe about 65 degrees, so many may still be south of Ocean City," Broberg said. "This [East Coast ] population has been identified as a strategic stock and it's still being studied to determine if it is threatened."
Scientists also view the dolphins as good indicators of water quality, Broberg said. Since they have no natural predators, the animals provide a good barometer of overall ocean health, she said.
Yesterday, spotters tallied 119 dolphins, off from a high of 265 two years ago, but way ahead of last year, when only nine animals were counted. Spotters at the 40th Street location counted 35, said Jenny Fiegl, an aquarium spokeswoman.
"There was heavy fog at Assateague, so that probably limited the total number [spotted]," Fiegl said. "But it's right about what we expected, and the mix of adults and juvenile animals looked good. This was a good year."
Broberg said, "Sometimes we think we ought to do the count at 6 in the morning, but that would certainly cut down the number of people involved. People are always asking `what can I do?' This is one tangible way they can help."