Mammals of the Gulf by Chester Moore

TEXAS SALTWATER by Calixto Gonzales
June 25, 2017
TEXAS FRESHWATER by Matt Williams
June 25, 2017

The dingy waters of Cow Bayou wind through the southernmost reaches of the Piney Woods and empty into the coastal marsh near the mouth of Sabine Lake.

The upper reaches north of FM 105 are lined with hulking cypress trees and are a favorite destination for an occasional bass fisherman and locals running trotlines for channel cats. Yet somehow in 2014, a pair of bottlenose dolphins found their way into this area.

One was tragically killed by poachers and the other, a younger male, got disoriented and found itself unable to find its way back to more saline waters. Eventually too much exposure to fresh water will kill dolphins.

“Zip,” a dolphin rescued in South Texas is now being cared for at Sea World San Antonio. Sea World is heavily involved in not only marine mammal education but also rehabilitation.

A crew from the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Sea World San Antonio, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and NOAA rescued that dolphin. After it was deemed releasable, the dolphin was brought to Sea Rim State Park and put into the surf.

“It’s an incredible feeling to get to release a dolphin like that,” said Chris Bellows VP of Zoological Operations at Sea World San Antonio. “Once the designation is given to us that an animal can be released, we are always relieved because that is certainly the option we desire.”

But some dolphins are not able to be released.

“When a dolphin or any marine mammal has been rescued by a federally authorized organization the first goal is to get that animal back out to the wild,” Bellows said. “Sometimes that can’t happen. NOAA receives information from veterinarians and care givers, and if the recommendation is to provide long term care, NOAA makes that decision.

“Once the decision has been made to care for an animal for the rest of its life, the goal is to place it at a facility with like species. NOAA sends out a questionnaire to these facilities asking if they would be willing to care for the animal. They also check to make sure certain criteria are met. At SeaWorld San Antonio we currently have five dolphins that were placed with us by NOAA. Our goal is always to get the animals back out to the wild, but we will provide a home for those that can’t be returned.”

My wife Lisa and I got to meet several of these amazing animals and were blown away by the level of care and attention given to them.

While visiting Sea World San Antonio we also learned of a manatee that ended up in a power plant canal in Trinity Bay. Coastal fishermen frequently see dolphins, but very few have seen manatees on the Texas coast, although they seem to be moving into the state with greater frequency.

The truth is that Gulf waters are rich in marine mammals. Although many of them are rarely seen by the public, their conservation is important to the overall health of the Gulf ecosystem.

According to NOAA, 28 different species of marine mammals are known to occur in the Gulf of Mexico. All 28 species are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and six are also listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (sperm, sei, fin, blue, humpback and North Atlantic right whales).

Of the six ESA-listed whales, only endangered sperm whales are considered to commonly occur. According to NOAA, a resident population of female sperm whales and whales with calves are sighted frequently in the Gulf of Mexico.

Cuvier’s beaked whales are elusive and rarely seen at the surface, which is why their population status is unknown. These whales vary in coloration from rusty-brown, dark gray, or tan. They prefer deep water, avoid shallow coastal areas, and are known to travel in groups of two to seven.

Bottlenose dolphins inhabit the Gulf of Mexico year-round. They are blue-gray with lighter sides and bellies and have a robust body and head. This species is the most commonly observed dolphin in near shore waters, and travel alone or in groups up to 20. These are the dolphins seen around ferries and in our bay systems.

Atlantic spotted dolphins prefer tropical to warm-temperate waters over the continental shelf, edge, and upper reaches of the slope. These dolphins have variable spotting. They are very active at the surface and often breach while feeding. Group size is usually between five and fifteen.

Risso’s dolphins are typically found around the continental shelf edge and steep upper sections of the slope. They are light gray and often exhibit extensive scarring. These dolphins travel alone or in groups of up to 100 and may be observed with other species.

With this being the second article in our “Wild Gulf” series, the goal is to raise awareness to the presence of marine mammals and give anglers the opportunity to be a watchful eye, so to speak.

No one enters these animals’ domain more than fishermen. In many cases anglers have helped locate and monitor injured marine mammals.

Anglers have been at the forefront of the conservation world with groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association working heavy with sport fish and habitat, but have also been very interested in aiding all aquatic species.

Marine mammals are some of the most interesting creatures in the world. If we open our eyes and pay just a little more attention we might just come across a rarity or get a big surprise.

I will never forget the first time I saw a pink albino dolphin near Lake Calcasieu in Louisiana. Neither will I forget seeing a beaked whale while fishing 80 miles offshore in a party boat out of Galveston. It’s our duty to make sure these creatures can thrive in the waters that we know and love.

What if I Find a Stranded Marine Mammal?

If you find a stranded marine mammal, here is what you should, and should not, do:

• Call 1-800-9-MAMMAL

• DO NOT return the animal to the sea.

• Follow instructions from TMMSN staff until the rescue team arrives.

• Keep people and pets away from the animal.

• Only one or two people are needed until expert help arrives.

• Do not leave the animal.

The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network (TMMSN) is a non-profit organization created in 1980 to further the understanding and conservation of marine mammals through rescue and rehabilitation, research and education.

The TMMSN consists of six regions along the Texas coast, which provide a coordinated response to all marine mammal strandings along the Texas coastline.

The TMMSN receives no state funding and receives only limited institutional support in the form of grants. TMMSN relies on the donations of time and funds from generous supporters to continue it’s mission dedicated to rescue, rehabilitation, research, and education. For more information go to tmmsn.org

 

—story by Chester Moore

 

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