On the following Monday Toby found herself traveling to Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge in nearby Ft. Walton Beach. A biologist there agreed to meet with her. His research on bottlenose dolphins encompassed the Pensacola Bay area east to the Choctawhatchee Basin.
Toby learned about a coordinated effort among many agencies and the University of Central Florida to study the local population of bottlenose dolphins, their feeding habits, and prey as a baseline for measuring future impacts from the oil spill. She wanted to know about the dolphin calf that was picked up by the Wildlife Refuge.
Dr. Steve Hadley explained that the analysis of tissue samples was still in progress and tests sometimes took months to complete. While he hesitated to blame the deaths on the oil spill, he explained that dolphins mate February to March. So the spill which occurred in April would have impacted fetuses in their early stages of development if the oil was a cause of the dolphin’s death. Many of the dead calves rolling up across the Gulf shorelines were stillborn Toby learned.
“What can I do to help?” Toby could not stand by and do nothing.
Steve was thoughtful for a moment. “Get involved with us. You can report activity of dolphin pods to the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi. They have a citizen science program. They take your information through an online database. We, the Refuge that is, are part of the NOAA marine mammal stranding network. You can find an emergency number on our website to report strandings like the one you witnessed.”
Toby was taking notes furiously on her smartphone; she would get The Fishin’ Chix and the local yacht club involved…members were on the water all the time.
“How come I haven’t heard more about this problem?” Toby asked.
Steve explained that the interest in the impact of the spill was suppressed by municipalities’ push to convince travelers who support the Gulf Coast’s billion dollar tourism industry that everything was fine with the water and the wildlife.
“You mean the problem has been suppressed in the local media?”
His look said it all. He was being careful not to be quoted and Toby could see that the forces that keep the economic engines running had already exerted enough influence that it reached to the Refuge itself. She’d seen it many times before.