By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Sr. Staff Writer
A particularly robust “Dolphin Week” event in 2019 seemed to have the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network headed in the right direction.
Plans for this year were moving right along until the COVID-19 pandemic ruined everything in its path, including dolphin education in the Lowcountry.
This year has been marred by cancellations, postponements and budget cuts. Progress is also hampered by the fact, “there are still a lot of people that don’t know our program is out there,” LMMN Executive Director Lauren Rust said on June 24.
Despite the pall 2020 has cast over just about everything, as well as a canceled recruitment drive, LMMN has 12 volunteers on Seabrook and 16 on Kiawah.
“With the summer season, we always try to do a push in getting our programs out there and offer information as people flood the beaches and waterways. We want to get some reminders out there. We had a kickoff meeting scheduled for the beginning of May, which obviously got canceled. Things are very different this year,” said Rust.
“We used to approach almost everybody on the beach, handing out information and answering questions. Just a really proactive approach trying to intercept any possible interactions. But now it’s more passive. We’re not really approaching people unless the dolphins are active or unless they’re doing something we would discourage,” she added.
Rust’s childhood love of marine mammals inspired the Pennsylvania native to study marine biology at the College of Charleston and earn an master of science in ecology from the University of Wales.
Her professional experience includes work at California’s Marine Mammal Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Charleston’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. Rust founded LMMN in 2017, “because no one else was doing it.”
Local dolphin pods were also part of the attraction. The Lowcountry is home to one of a precious few pods on the planet known to herd bait fish onto shore, a behavior called strand feeding.
Witnessing strand feeding borders on a religious experience for nature lovers but leaves the mammals vulnerable to human interference. Guidelines to safely observe dolphins were established by federal agencies including NOAA, which are underfunded for the task and absent from the beaches until Rust came along.
NOAA defines two levels of harassment. Level A is any act of pursuit, torment or annoyance that has the potential to injure, while Level B is any act that has the potential to disturb by causing a disruption of behavioral patterns in migration, breathing, nursing, feeding or sheltering. Fines can be as high as six figures in extreme cases.
The “whys” of LMMN’s recommendations take more time and may be the biggest part of the education process for Rust and her volunteers. The tip of the education iceberg includes: maintaining a distance of 50 yards when observing from the water and 15 yards while on land; not approaching, touching or attempting to push a stranded marine mammal back into the water; reporting a stranded marine mammal, dead or alive, to SCDNR’s wildlife stranding hotline by calling 800-922-5431; avoiding feeding marine mammals; cleaning up trash; and, above all, avoiding harassing marine mammals.
Asked how volunteers are dealing with plague prevention, Rust said gloves and masks are pretty much optional in 90-degree heat. Worse is that none of the visitors they encounter are wearing masks, so social distancing is essential but also generally accepted by everyone Rust meets.
“The second component of our mission that is beyond just the people interactions is data collection, and we collect a lot of it. We started in the middle of May, and we encourage people to use our app,” Rust said.
You don’t have to enlist with the program to participate by using your phone to relay information to the LMMN/NOAA database. It’s a real-time app, and you can enter the information later, but if you do it right then, an automatic GPS component will augment the data entered.
“We’re still going to do a ‘Dolphin Week’ in October and possibly have a fundraiser when time permits,” Rust added.
LMMN usually receives its funding from a variety of sources, including grant money and private donations, and the municipal governments of Kiawah and Seabrook pay a marginal fee to LMMN for managing, educating and organizing volunteers charged with supervising dolphin encounters along their beaches. The pandemic has placed such a burden on municipalities that LMMN has been written out of the budget, a measure Rust hopes isn’t permanent.
“Nobody knows much about our program or about marine mammals. There’ve been a few studies done, but they were very technical, so we see ourselves as a bridge between the scientific community and an engaged public,” Rust concluded.