Volunteers counted an “extremely low” 82 bottlenose dolphins along the Southern California coast Saturday, leading one researcher to believe that many of the oceangoing mammals have journeyed south temporarily to warmer waters off Mexico.
The count was the fourth and most ambitious bid by Orange Coast College marine biologist Dennis Kelly to identify the number of dolphins in local waters on a single day. More than 350 men, women and children stood at strategic intervals along the 232-mile coastline between the Mexican border and Gaviota, north of Santa Barbara, scanning the Pacific for large groups, or pods, of dolphins, Kelly said.
Kelly said that the final count figure of 82 was disappointing compared to previous counts, when as many as 180 dolphins have been sighted in the coastal waters--and by fewer spotters. Of the four mass-sighting efforts, Saturday’s used the most volunteers.
Marine biologists believe that as many as 600 of the slate-gray bottlenose, or near-shore, dolphins live off the Southern California coast.
“My assumption is that most of the dolphins in Southern California have gone south to Mexico (because) the waters here have gotten a little cooler,” Kelly said Saturday night. “They may have moved south with their food.”
Kelly said he won’t know for sure why the count was so low until he does a comparative dolphin count off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Whether he undertakes that or any other dolphin counts will depend on the scientific interest expressed at an American Cetacean Society symposium Nov. 12 in Monterey, where he is to present a report.
Curious about the size and range of the Southern California dolphin population, and fearful about what he says is an increasing threat from pollutants to the dolphins’ fragile habitat, Kelly has sought to pinpoint the mammals’ numbers. Kelly, who has studied dolphins for a decade at Orange Coast College and formed the nonprofit Coastal Dolphin Survey a year ago, said that knowing the dolphins’ population will help determine whether the species is thriving or dying.
Saturday’s volunteers, including 200 in Orange County, were spaced about a mile apart along much of the Southern California coast. The largest number of dolphins--12--was spotted in Orange County, Kelly said. No dolphins were spotted off Santa Barbara, and few were spotted by two research boats and a light plane that were used to verify onshore sightings.
Kelly said that children, especially, were let down by the low number of sightings.
“It’s disappointing when people come out here to see dolphins and they don’t see any,” Kelly said. “They’re (the dolphins) probably all sitting down there in Mexico and laughing at us.”