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Researchers from the University of Massachusetts say there’s something special about Cedar Key dolphins.
“They have unique feeding behaviors not seen anywhere else in the world,” said PhD candidate Stefanie Gazda in a phone interview Friday.
Gazda heads up the Cedar Key Dolphin Project, a program that operates in the area for a few short weeks each year aimed at a better understanding the creatures and the environment they live in.
“We want to see where they go, what they do, who they meet up with and who they don’t meet up with.”
Gazda came to the area in 2001 after an advisor, Frank Cox, saw video from a local fishermen on Cedar Key dolphin behavior and suggested the mammals might be a good subject for her master’s thesis.
Gazda spent three months in Cedar Key, and what she discovered is that bottlenose dolphins in the area exhibit role specialization when it comes to hunting.
The dolphins organize, she said. One is designated as a “driver,” sending fish—mostly mullet—into a circle of other dolphins.
“It was the first time ever seen in marine mammals,” she said, adding that, in fact, only one other example, coordination among African lionesses, has ever been recorded.
This year, Gazda and three other students from Massachusetts, taking photos and recording dolphin behavior, will be in Cedar Key for about six weeks, patrolling a three-zone region from Corrigan Reef to the Mouth of the Suwannee River.
The last time the team was in Cedar Key was in 2010, just before the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Gazda said she felt helpless and frustrated.
“The oil spill was a terrible thing ... but it was also an interesting thing to happen because it created a lot of interest in the Gulf,” she said. “The Gulf has a huge amount of biodiversity. There are many marine mammals, but not a lot of research.”
In fact, she said, the lack of interest prior to the oil spill has been one of the challenges.
“We don’t have enough data to see how populations have been affected.” And there are not a lot of resources to go around, she said.
Cedar Key wasn’t directly hit by the spill, she said, but it will take more study to see how the environment there has been affected. Having a better understanding of the lives of dolphins in Cedar Key is important because it will help in an overall understanding of marine life in the Gulf.
Part of the research being done by the team this summer will focus on how contaminants in fish could potentially affect the health of dolphins, she said, a point that could have bearing on the health of humans, as well.
“Dolphins eat the same fish humans do.”
And there are other reason to study dolphins, as well, Gazda said.
“Dolphins are really smart, and people really relate to them.” They act as ambassadors to the Gulf, she said.
Cedar Key Police Chief Virgil Sandlin couldn’t agree more.
He said he’s always had a fondness for the creatures, but he said it wasn’t until he’d been involved in a boating accident, severely injured and set adrift in the shark-infested waters of Cedar Key’s Northwest Channel about eight years ago that he developed a special bond with the aquatic mammals.
“I was hurt bad,” Sandlin said about the accident.
Bleeding and worrying about being attacked by sharks, Sandlin said he noticed he wasn’t alone. A dolphin had been shadowing him, keeping a distance of about 10 feet.
“It was like he sensed I was in distress. It was like he was protecting me.”
The dolphin stayed near him for about 45 minutes until Sandlin washed up øntø a sandbar.
“It was like he was saying, ‘I’m gonna’ make sure you’re taken care of.’”
Sandlin, who later needed five units of blood, was rescued by a passing boat.
“It’s just one of those things. They’ll always have a special place in my heart.”
Michelle Pearson, who works for Captain Doug’s Tidewater Tours and Boat Rentals in Cedar Key, said dolphins are an important part of the area’s economy.
“People really want to see dolphins,” she said. “To be honest, none of us get tired of them.”
Tourists often catch them playing in the wake of a boat or taking an active interest in the occupants aboard, especially children and pregnant women, she said.
“They’re so interested and so curious about us, I think is what makes them so interesting to us.”
Gazda said she hopes to keep studying Cedar Key dolphins for years to come.
“My dream is to have a small, but permamant, research base here. I’d like to make my career in Cedar Key. Dolphins can live for 40 years ... takes time to understand them.”
Gazda said she also enjoys the community-mided atmosphere on the island.
“You don’t get that in a big town,” she said. “People are vested in this environment.”
Gazda and her team will be talking about the Cedar Key Dolphin Project and some of the research being done June 14, at 5 p.m. at the Cedar Key Library. The team also has a website: www,cedarkeydolphinproject.org.