Does bridge construction affect dolphins, too?

TREASURE ISLAND

It turns out that motorists and joggers are not the only ones who hate it when the John's Pass Bridge is closed for underwater blasts.

About 200 bottlenose dolphins, for which Ann Weaver has code names like Bet, DD1 and Face, hate it, too.

Weaver figured as much a year into her dolphin research in Boca Ciega Bay. Dolphin sightings near the bridge project declined from about 14.3 sightings a day in 2005, the year before construction began, to 10.89 per day in 2006 when construction started.

Central to their absence, Weaver says, is noise.

The underwater implosions are like a sonic boom that can shatter a dolphin's sophisticated hearing. The much more frequent rat-tat-tat-tat of jackhammers can be equally dangerous to a marine mammal whose world revolves around sound, she said.

"The richness that is lost in the lives of these animals, to say nothing of the health of this ocean, is irreplaceable," says Weaver. But it would be too easy to say that the John's Pass project is bad for dolphins or other marine life. It's too early in Weaver's research to say that conclusively, anyway. Weaver, an animal behaviorist, logs the numbers in thick binders and computer spreadsheets and continues to watch. Other factors, like Red Tide, weather and food abundance, will need to be weighed. One day her work may prove useful to federal agencies monitoring dolphins.

For now, it appears to enhance a marine wildlife safety plan by the Florida Department of Transportation to reduce the risk of danger during construction to dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, birds and other wildlife in Boca Ciega Bay.

"The first time I heard of her was when she called me and congratulated me for doing my job," said Bruce Hasbrouck, a marine biologist who is supervising the wildlife watch for the state transportation agency.

On that day in 2006, Hasbrouck delayed an underwater implosion so that a group of dolphins could clear the area. Later, Weaver brought Hasbrouck to Madeira Beach Middle School, where they explained the project to seventh- and eighth-graders.

Launching from a dock behind her home on Isle of Capri, Weaver works in Boca Ciega Bay several times a week. A statistics professor at Argosy University in Sarasota, Weaver is authorized to study dolphins by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She works alone or with her husband, John Heidemann, on a 20-foot research boat wryly named Miss Behavin.

Her dolphin watches are playfully documented in a weekly column for Tampa Bay Newspapers, in which she describes a world of hidden dramas, intrigue and mystery. In this underwater realm, swooping terns are "pirates" for their ability to snatch fish from a dolphin's snout, romantic wanderings and illegitimate children abound, and a mother may be seen mourning her dead calf for a full week.

"She had the baby over Memorial Day weekend," Weaver says of the dolphin she named Split. "Next day it was dead. We saw it that night. She did not leave the corpse for over a week. And we have video footage of her pushing the corpse, tending the corpse, pushing the corpse, keeping other dolphins away . . . It was just heartbreaking."

"We know that dolphins mourn the dead," she added, "but we have direct evidence of that here."

Another time, Weaver warned of the peril in feeding dolphins, which stop hunting for themselves and become weak and susceptible to prey. It was told through the story of Whitley, who became a "beggar dolphin." A group of people on personal watercraft in Clearwater saw a dolphin in distress and yelled at Weaver to do something. But federal regulations barring anyone without a permit from touching the protected mammals prevented her interference.

"He was really ripped up by sharks," Weaver said. "You could see his tail sinking. It was hideous . . . I watched him and he sunk. It was the hardest thing for me, because I've watched their behavior for 25 years. I've never seen them die."

And yet there is apt to be a smile on Weaver's face every time she goes out, not unlike the child who spots a dolphin on a charter boat. There is the playfulness between a young calf and its mother, or the "gift" of a mature dolphin making a slow pass feet away from Weaver's boat.

She takes meticulous digital photographs — 58,000 at last count — in order to identify the dolphins through markings on their bodies and dorsal fins.

A 1994 aerial survey by NOAA found about 600 dolphins living in Tampa Bay. Researchers at Eckerd College and the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg have long-standing studies of dolphins in Boca Ciega Bay.

Weaver, who has studied dolphins in San Diego, North Carolina, the Bahamas and Baja, Mexico, as well as primates, says she found that the Tampa Bay area was more full of awareness for wildlife than any of those places when she moved here five years ago.

Weaver is optimistic. After the dolphin numbers around John's Pass fell off in 2006, they shot back up in 2007. This year, there was a bumper crop of 12 calves born in Boca Ciega Bay, she said.

She fears a world where dolphins are forgotten.

"If the animals are chased from this area for whatever reason, we cannot put them back," she said.

Luis Perez can be reached at Lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

Does bridge construction affect dolphins, too? 12/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 8:43pm]

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