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Deeper look at dolphins

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


TAMPA -- The Florida Aquarium is launching a dolphin tour with a research twist.

TAMPA -- The Florida Aquarium is launching a dolphin tour with a research twist.

Customers on the aquarium's new 64-foot catamaran, the Bay Spirit, which will be christened today, will help build what amounts to a family album of bottlenose dolphins in Tampa Bay.

Tourists will help spot the animals for a crew member, who will photograph the dolphins with a camera equipped with a zoom lens of at least 350 mm. The pictures will go into a catalog that will identify each dolphin seen between the Port of Tampa and the mouth of the Alafia River.

Each sighting will add information about individuals and the population as a whole.

"As we see them and photograph them again and again, we can talk about this particular individual, his life span, where he's been," said Michael Priolo, who directs the aquarium's educational programs.

Guests of the boat's Dolphin Quest Eco-tour also can name the dolphins cataloged -- such as Seven-Eighths, so named because that's how much of his dorsal fin is missing.

The goal is to answer questions such as how many dolphins live here and how many just visit, whether there are locations especially favored by mother-and-calf groups, what their individual ranges are and which dolphins are related to each other.

Researchers at Eckerd College's Dolphin Project have identified about 500 dolphins in Boca Ciega Bay. The Bay Spirit catalog will extend that research to the rest of Tampa Bay.

"We haven't looked at the dolphins up near the Florida Aquarium. We don't know if those hang out where we study," said Samantha Eide, manager of Eckerd's Dolphin Project. "That would be extremely interesting to know for habitat protection."

Priolo said dolphin sightings are most likely from the wastewater treatment plant at Hooker's Point to the mouth of the Alafia.

They cannot, however, be guaranteed.

"Guests have to remember that this is real habitat, real animals," he said. "They're not in an enclosure."

One reason for the zoom lens, he said, is to photograph the dolphins from a distance. It's against the law to pursue them or harass them, a point Priolo wants to convey to tourists during the ride.

Eide said she hopes the information gathered will help scientists fill in the many blanks about dolphin behavior.

Bottlenose dolphins are not endangered, but studying them offers insight into their endangered relatives, such as the beluga, beaked and sperm whales, Eide said.

What is known is that they have well-developed senses of hearing, sight and touch. It is thought they also have some sense of taste, since they do have taste buds and food preferences.

They live together in groups called pods. The average size of a pod on Florida's West Coast is about seven individuals. Mothers and calves stay together for three to six years, and dolphins within a pod appear to develop strong attachments to each other.

Some dolphins have been known to seek human contact, but that won't be part of the Bay Spirit tour.

"There'll be no feeding the dolphins, no swimming with them," Priolo said. "These animals are predators. They have teeth that are extremely sharp. They could do some severe damage if they wanted to."

The Bay Spirit will be christened this afternoon by Dr. Linda McClintock-Greco, wife of Mayor Dick Greco.

- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or gibson@sptimes.com.

Interested?

Daily tours will begin in April, though no firm date has been set. The cost will be $15 for adults, $14 for seniors and $10 for children. Discounts for members and discount combination tickets for aquarium visitors will be available.

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