Volunteers keep watch for dolphins at Ocean City


OCEAN CITY -- Mike Lehrfeld scanned the water and made a note on the clipboard propped on his legs. Below him, the Saturday morning crowd was filling the beach, spilling into the surf.

"Lotta birds, lotta boats, lotta Jet Skis . . . no dolphins," said Mr. Lehrfeld, a Beach Patrol member who volunteered to help count the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins off Ocean City yesterday.

He was one of hundreds of volunteers and scientists who went out along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Florida to participate in Dolphin Count 1994, the second year of the count.

"I think it will be a couple of years before we can get any trends," said David Schofield, a senior mammalogist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Mr. Schofield, who also heads the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, coordinated the Maryland dolphin count.

The information will be gathered from the various states over the weekend and then analyzed, said Mark Swingle, the curator of the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach, Va.

Mr. Swingle will organize the data analysis and use it to make conservation recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"In many ways, we don't feel like anybody knows how many dolphins there are," Mr. Swingle said. "This survey will go a long way toward answering that question."

Volunteers were given a packet containing data sheets, one for each hour of the survey. Each sheet broke down the hour into four 15-minute blocks. The sheets also contained spaces for other data: numbers of boats, weather, bird behavior, water conditions.

The final count will use one block of time for the whole coastline to ensure that each dolphin is only counted once, Mr. Swingle and Mr. Schofield said.

Along Ocean City's 10.5 miles of coastline, nine Beach Patrol volunteers tabulated numbers of dolphins they saw. A 10th observer was pilot Greg von Rigler, who monitored the dolphins from the air as he flew customers of his Skytours airplane service over the beach.

"I saw about 12," Mr. von Rigler said. "The ones I'm seeing are pretty far offshore. . . . They just kind of play around. It's fun to watch."

Also in the planes were Mr. Schofield and Mr. Swingle. Mr. Schofield flew around the Chesapeake Bay, and Mr. Swingle flew along Virginia's coastline, where more than 100 observers were plying pencils and binoculars.

Both men said they were pleased with the day's results, although numbers of dolphins were not tabulated yesterday afternoon.

"I think all in all, it was a great, coordinated effort," Mr. Schofield said.

During his flight above the Chesapeake, he said he saw about 20 dolphins. Observers on the Eastern Shore's Tilghman Island reported 20 as well.

Aquarium volunteer Debbie Shaw, a Department of Defense business analyst, drove to Ocean City from Baltimore to help coordinate the count.

At Mr. Lehrfeld's Beach Patrol stand, Ms. Shaw scanned the horizon with binoculars but saw no dolphins. "I don't know how they're going to be running," she said when her initial survey turned up nothing.

"I usually see them every day," Mr. Lehrfeld said.

An informal marine-information exchange began between the two, with Mr. Lehrfeld offering some of his observations from other days.

He sees seals and porpoises and has recently seen a loggerhead turtle, he told her. "It looked like a prehistoric monster . . . like a Klingon's head," he said.

Around him, beach-goers were milling in the surf on the hot, sunny day.

The idea for the survey began after more than 700 dolphins died along the Atlantic coast in 1987, and marine officials designated the dolphin population "threatened," a status still in place today.

"It was disease-related," said Mr. Swingle, who estimated that it wiped out about half the coastline's dolphin population.

Scientists are interested in the migratory population of the Atlantic bottlenose, he said. They believe that the migratory dolphins go as far north as Long Island in the summer, then head south as far as Florida in the winter. Yesterday's count will provide information about migratory patterns, Mr. Swingle says.

The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is about 2 feet long at birth, grows to a length of 9 or 10 feet and can weigh as much as 500 pounds, Mr. Swingle said.

"These are the most frequently seen marine mammals," he said. "They're the ones you see when you're swimming. . . . They're curious; they like to play."

That playful quality is evident even from the beach. At 131st Street, a crowd quickly formed in the surf when a group (scientists call them "pods") of dolphins was sighted just beyond the wave break line.

A fin here, a splash there -- the dolphins were clearly enjoying their swim, and the crowd was enjoying them.

"There you go -- beautiful," said Angelo Curro, a visitor from Edgewater, when the dolphins were visible. "They look like little kids playing in the water."

On the Beach Patrol stand, assistant crew chief David Shealy was filling in his data sheet, logging in the dolphins.

"I haven't really totaled them out," he said. "The biggest amount so far has been 15 or 16 in one group. They're very playful, though. I don't know if it's the warm water or what."

Beach Patrol Lt. Ward Kovacs, who organized the patrol's volunteers, ventured out on a paddle board with a camera, hoping for a closer look and maybe a picture. He saw them, but got no picture.

"They're beautiful creatures," said Mr. Curro.

"Everybody is enjoying watching them -- I think they bring out the best in people," added Debbie Dacre, a visitor from Baltimore.

"I like it . . . to get out here on the beach and actually make a contribution to something significant," said Ms. Shaw as the observation period ended.

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