Dolphin sightings in the Chesapeake Bay and Anne Arundel County rivers surprised boaters last week and raised the question: Does this mean water quality is improving?
Not necessarily, said Amanda Weschler, a marine mammal and sea turtle stranding coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources.
"It's actually not uncommon for this area this time of year," she said. "They migrate to our area in the warmer months, May through October."
Fins grazed the surface waters of the Severn, South, West and Rhode rivers, according to witnesses who said they've seen dolphins off the county shoreline rarely, if ever.
Doug Wallop, 54, grew up on the Severn and had never seen or heard of dolphins on that river.
He was near the water at 7:30 a.m. on July 11 when he spotted a pod between the Winchester and Epping Forest communities.
"I was dressed and ready for work when I saw them out in the river," the Annapolis resident said. "I jumped on my paddle board and was able to get fairly close."
He said the group of about 30 dolphins was aware of him.
"They were just as surprised as I was since four kicked hard and splashed me as they dove beneath my board," he said.
West and Rhode Riverkeeper Jeff Holland said dolphins have been present in the waters he oversees for about two weeks. He believes they are following schools of fish like menhaden up the bay.
"They're happy here," he said. "They're finding an abundance of fish so at least someone thinks the water is clean enough. I trust dolphins' opinions."
The last time Holland heard of dolphins sightings in that area was three years ago, he said.
"It's so exciting and so wonderful to see that we're part of a larger ecosystem, and we're connecting with the rest of the world with the treasure we have in our back yard," he said. "This is why we're doing this work and striving to make a difference."
Nathan Frankoff was captaining a Severn Riverkeeper monitoring boat on July 11 at 8:48 a.m. He saw a pod of 20 to 25 dolphins near the Naval Academy wall.
"I was saying 'wow' a lot," Frankoff said. "They were jumping around. We had three come up right next to the boat. It was really cool. The last time I've seen them this far north in the river was about 15 years ago."
Frankoff suspects they were welcomed by higher than normal salinity levels in the river.
Patrick Snapp, 67, has lived in Turkey Point for 19 years but has never seen dolphins in the South River. On Tuesday morning, Snapp and his wife Darlene, 66, saw several dozen playing in and around Selby Bay.
"We were very amazed, delighted," he said. "We couldn't get away from them. We watched them as long as we could."
John Page Williams, a senior naturalist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he was riding an oyster planter Tuesday morning from Shady Side to the South River when he spotted a pod playing near Hillsmere.
Williams generally sees the dolphins as a positive sign regarding water quality, he said. But he speculated that dolphins may be in town to take advantage of hypoxic squeezing, in which fish are forced to inhabit a small area between tolerable temperature and levels of dissolved oxygen.
"They're all squeezed into a thin slice of water because they can't go down deeper," he said, which could make it easier for dolphins to gobble them up.
Weschler reminded boaters and waterfront visitors that dolphins are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Touching, following, feeding or harassing them is frowned up and can lead to fines or jail time, she said.
Williams said dolphins are fun to watch but advises anglers who cross paths with dolphins to leave the area.
"If you're out there fishing and the dolphins come through, it probably makes sense to move," he said. "They've probably eaten everything."
If you see a dolphin in trouble
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If you see a marine mammal that is sick, stranded, entangled, injured, behaving unusually or otherwise in danger, call the Department of Natural Resources hotline: 1-800-628-9944.