OCEAN CITY - Peering toward choppy gray waves and a smear of mid-July humidity that shrouded the horizon early yesterday, Val-Jean Slowinski kept her binoculars at the ready. Trouble was, if you were out scouting dolphins, as she was, it turned into a day at the beach.
For the past 17 years, scientists and staff from the National Aquarium in Baltimore and its Marine Animal Rescue program have recruited volunteers such as Slowinski, a Towson resident who summers at the ocean, to help count the bottlenose dolphins as they skim along sandbars and shoals, surfacing to breathe above the murky waves along Maryland's 26-mile coast.
"Dolphins are a love of mine," said Slowinski, a retired speech pathology teacher who spent three hours scanning the sea from the beach at 40th Street.
"Usually, I come to the beach in the late afternoon, and if they've found some food, they'll stay a while. But that's the thing - you never know where they'll be, where you'll see them," Slowinski said.
Even with a dozen staff members and their eager helpers spread out about every 20 blocks or so from Assateague to the Delaware line, the count doesn't resemble anything like an exact science, Maryland organizers say. And the dolphins go where they wish.
"This is a general census of the coastal migratory stock we have here in the Mid-Atlantic," said Jennifer Dittmar, who runs the aquarium's stranding response program. "The count doesn't tell us much right away, but it becomes a part of a bigger picture. And it gives people a chance to get involved."
Over the years, some researchers have settled on an estimate of 15,000 bottlenose that inhabit Mid-Atlantic waters, but Dittmar says it is impossible to pinpoint an exact number that spend their summers here.
The dolphins range from Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina to Delaware. Occasionally, they'll wander as far as Cape Cod or Florida. Typically, they're here from May until September, searching not only for food but for pleasant water temperatures. Ideal water for dolphins is not far from what humans enjoy - 72 to 74 degrees.
Yesterday, staff members and volunteers staked out vantage points, scrambling during the three-hour shift to tally as many dolphins as they could see as the animals splashed out of the surf, pursuing their favorite foods: herring, bluefish and menhaden.
"Like any marine animal, they'll pretty much follow the food and the tide," said Dittmar. "When there's abundant food, you can almost follow their day as they swim back and forth. Obviously, there's no way to tell whether a group of dolphins heading south might have been the pod you saw an hour ago, but it often seems that way."
Yesterday's count was as much about educating people as it was in spotting dolphins, at least in the short term, said Dittmar. The annual tally has proved to be a sure-fire method of getting volunteers excited about helping the wild cousins of the mammals that star in aquatic shows in downtown Baltimore.
To dolphin watchers, the animals are notoriously unpredictable. The best action yesterday came two miles offshore near a 47-foot Coast Guard vessel piloted by Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Karpf. Spotters tallied 36 in just a couple of hours.
"We see pretty much everything out here - whales, sea turtles, seals," Karpf said. "The dolphins usually hang out around offshore shoals or at the Ocean City Inlet. When the tide starts to go out, it pulls their food right through the inlet to them."
For scientists, the annual census provides a baseline for long-term comparisons of the numbers and habits of a sea animal that always seems to appeal to humans.
"What we're really getting here is a snapshot, a quick picture of their numbers and even a little information about their habits," Dittmar said. "Over the long term, we can see patterns, or maybe we'll see problems developing."
Like other stranding teams on the Atlantic coast, the aquarium's researchers organized the annual count of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in 1989, two years after nearly 1,500 of the animals died, beached at sites throughout the region.
Perplexed scientists still aren't certain what happened, but the dolphins apparently died of a virus similar to the flu in humans. Continued strandings are another mystery, but researchers have learned much about the mammals' behavior.
After the dolphin watch concluded yesterday and the spotters reported in, aquarium officials put the Maryland count at 66, a disappointing showing after last year's tally of 119 but not definitive proof of any problem.
Yesterday, a few miles to the north, Delaware volunteers and researchers organized by the MERR Institute, a Nassau, Del., nonprofit group that also rescues stranded mammals and sea turtles, conducted its dolphin count from the state line to the mouth of Delaware Bay.
The two groups are sharing data this year and have plans for coordinating their efforts with similar programs in nearby states.
"It's something that people want to be a part of," said MERR director Suzanne Thurman. "Every year, we're inundated with calls. Some people even time their vacations to time it during the count."
Figures from Delaware's dolphin watch were not available.