Marine scientist: Video of ‘cute’ dolphin shows concerning behavior

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Video taken by a local woman of a dolphin playfully approaching her boat, got a lot of positive feedback on social media. Many who watched it described the dolphin as cute or adorable.

But Dr. Tara Cox, a professor of marine sciences at Savannah State’s Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences had a somewhat different reaction. She says it showed concerning behavior in our local waterways — dolphins begging for food.

“It was an adorable video that everyone wants to think is so cute and for a researcher, it was actually quite disturbing,” she said. “It means the animal wants to be fed from the boat, which is just bad for humans and dolphins alike.”

“Flipper and the Sea World version of ‘tail walking dolphins’ is not a normal behavior that we should see in the wild,” Cox said.

She actually says, according to research, that Savannah-area dolphins are the worst beggars.

“Compared to hot spots like Panama City, Florida, Sarasota, Florida, and even places in Australia, our dolphins are the worst beggars in the world,” said Cox. “If you see them, two-thirds of them are going to be begging at your boat which is just not safe and good for the dolphin.”

“We just want to get the word out there that this is not a normal behavior and we don’t want to encourage people to think that’s a normal behavior,” she added.

Cox says first, dolphins may get close to the propellers. so they’re more likely to be injured. She also says in terms of food, dolphins “don’t learn how to forage naturally, and especially if it’s a mom with a calf, then the calf doesn’t learn how to feed itself.”

The professor also says sometimes people will feed a dolphin food that is not good for them, like fish that has been sitting on the boat or even some potato chips.

“In other places, we know that these animals become so habituated or conditioned to the feeding that they’re pulling fish off lines so fishermen get mad,” Cox explained. “And if you decide to feed a dolphin, they have been known to bite because they have sharp teeth.”

“Finally, they are mammals so they have the same diseases that humans do and so they can transmit those diseases to humans, especially if they bite you,” she added.

Cox says she has been studying the local dolphin population for over a decade. She and other researchers track dolphins via “a photo identification catalog that identities each individual by their nicks and notches.”

She says they have over 500 animals cataloged and we “probably have about 100 to 200 that live here year-round, but then we have coastal animals that come in in the summertime.”

The boater took the video near the Isle of Hope. Cox says dolphins can often be found in tidal creeks.

“We’re on Country Club Creek right now going to the Herb River to the Wilmington River, and they are in these tidal creeds all around Savannah and Wilmington Island, the Isle of Hope and all the way down the coast,” Cox explained.

She told News 3 that through their tracking, researchers think they have identified the dolphin in the boater’s video.

“We think this is an animal we’ve named Alphafa and that we’ve seen since 2009,” Cox said. “We’ve seen him pretty much every year and over 50 times (in total) and probably about 20 of those times he’s been begging at boats.”

She also says one other concern in some dolphins they track is they’re actually seeing the animals do more traveling than foraging. “So they’re looking for food but they’re spending all their energy looking for a boat rather than actually catching their own fish,” she said.

Cox says she has no problem that the person shared their video of the dolphin. She says no one on the board fed the animal in the video and she understands that many people are attracted to dolphins.

However, Cox just hopes the video can promote discussion about animals and what humans should be doing to help. Again, that means don’t feed the animals and don’t encourage them to ask for food.

“We just want to get the word out that, yes, these dolphins are amazing creatures but we want them to have normal behaviors and their natural foraging behaviors are great,” she said. “So set your boat to idle and watch them, but don’t approach them, and hopefully we will eventually see them stop begging at boats.”

Keep in mind: feeding dolphins is a federal offense.

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