(Updated 10-5-12 at 11:48 am with info on stingray barbs.)
This week, ocean advocates were stunned when a Florida woman was caught riding a manatee. Fortunately, that animal was unharmed, but another Florida marine mammal was not so lucky (it might be time to alert Drew Curtis’ Florida feed on Fark). Late last month, a wild bottlenose dolphin named Beggar was found dead in Sarasota.
Beggar, who was about 20 years old, has long been one of the most famous and most studied of wild dolphins around the world. Scientists have logged many hours observing him, and have published papers. YouTube is full of videos of Beggar made by boaters. This was made easy because, unfortunately, Beggar had developed a taste for human food, thanks to lots of folks who fed him illegally. (Bottlenose dolphins usually live between 30 and 50 years.)
It is illegal to feed or approach wild dolphins under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, and violators can get up to $100,000 in fines and up to one year in jail per violation. But enforcement is a challenge, given the huge size of coastal areas and the limited budgets of government agencies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has prosecuted three dolphin harassment cases in Florida in recent months, but studies suggest many more go unreported.
According to Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Beggar spent much of his time right off-shore, where he was frequently approached by boaters. Many petted him and tossed him food, often junk food like hot dogs or even beer.
As a result, Beggar mostly stopped foraging on his own, and he started hanging out in one small area, instead of roaming more broadly. He also essentially stopped socializing with other dolphins.
“By feeding Beggar, people changed his behavior and put him at an increased risk from boat strikes. It also appeared that other dolphins learned similar ‘begging’ behavior by watching him interact with humans,” the aquarium said in a statement.
Aquarium technicians performed a necropsy on Beggar’s body. Although they were unable to determine a definitive cause of death, they concluded that his altered behaviors were most likely to blame for his demise. They found evidence of past injuries from boat strikes, including old puncture wounds and broken ribs and vertebrae. He was dehydrated, possibly from eating an unnatural diet. He also had fishing tackle in his stomach, as well as squid beaks–but according to the scientists squid aren’t normally consumed by dolphins in that area, suggesting he was tossed some “sushi.” Beggar also had two stingray barbs embedded in his flesh, which may have contributed to his problems.
History of Harassment
In order to better understand how people are interacting with wild dolphins, and putting them at risk, Katie McHugh of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program conducted a study on Beggar in 2011 (the program is a partnership between Mote and the Chicago Zoological Society). In 100 hours of observation, McHugh saw:
- 3,600 interactions between Beggar and humans — up to 70 per hour;
- 169 attempts to feed him 520 different food items — from shrimp and squid to beer, hot dogs, and fruit;
- 121 attempts to touch him — resulting in nine bites to people.
McHugh concluded that “Beggar was not a healthy dolphin.” She also noted, perhaps unsurprisingly, that when NOAA law enforcement officers were nearby, people left Beggar alone.
Stacey Horstman, a dolphin coordinator with NOAA Fisheries, said in a statement late last month,”Beggar was a local icon and tourist attraction for over two decades, and the results of this necropsy are a reminder of how people’s actions are harmful to wild dolphins. There is a common misconception that feeding, touching, and swiming with dolphins is not harmful and that they don’t get hit by boats. We are concered about how frequently the public and anglers continue to feed wild dolphins, as Beggar is just one of many wild dolphins in the southeast U.S. that have been fed by people and learned to associate people with food. Responsibly viewing wild dolphins is crucial to their survival and we are asking the public for help so dolphin populations stay healthy and wild for generations to come.”
What You Can Do
If you feel bad for Beggar, there are some things you can do. Check out these tips on how to view wild dolphins safely, without putting them at risk. If you see someone feeding or harassing a wild marine animal (or trying to ride it), tell NOAA authorities immediately (check this page for your nearest division office).
Finally, do not feed wild dolphins. It may provide a quick thrill, but you are putting the animals at risk, and you could easily get bitten.
Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.