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NOAA Urges Spring Breakers to Avoid Dolphins

Mar 23, 2015 01:07 PM EDT

It's that time of year when college students all over the country migrate to warmer climates for a good time. But the NOAA is urging spring breakers along the Gulf Coast in particular to avoid wild dolphins when hitting the beaches this week.

As part of the "Keep Dolphins Wild" public awareness campaign, officials are warning Florida visitors not to feed, pet, or swim next to wild dolphins in light of several recent bottlenose dolphin deaths, which are said to be due to excessive human interaction.

"(Visitors) don't see and hear that these interactions are harmful and inappropriate and illegal," Stacey Horstman, NOAA bottlenose dolphin expert, told the Pensacola News Journal. "They see other people out there doing it and think it's OK. It's very dangerous for the people and dolphins."

The complete list of dolphins rules includes not making loud or sudden noises around the animals, limiting viewing time of the dolphins to 30 minutes or less, and not trapping the dolphins with boats or other watercraft.

Bottlenose dolphins are among the most well known species of marine mammals. They are charismatic creatures, and their curved mouths give the appearance of a friendly, permanent smile, National Geographic describes. However, don't be fooled; these dolphins are still wild animals.

The NOAA has had dozens of reports of people bitten by dolphins, especially if the dolphins are being taunted with food. But these encounters are not just dangerous to humans, but to the dolphins as well. Officials say the growing number of tragic dolphin killings are linked to the creature seeking free fish handouts from humans.

For example, in October a juvenile dolphin was found with fishing line wrapped around its fluke following reports of it hanging out at the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier, living off of free handouts from pier anglers and visitors. Unfortunately, a NOAA-led team failed to capture the dolphin to free it.

Fishing charter boat captain Chris Phillips, of Hot Spots Charters at Pensacola Beach Marina, knows the dangers of human-friendly dolphins all too well. Every time he drops a line in the water, he told Pensacola News, dozens of dolphins swarm on the boat, swimming dangerously close to his lines and trolling motor. (Scroll to read on...)

"They start showing up and try to snatch the fish off the hook," Phillips said. "Once they're on you, they follow you if you move. You can't shake them off."

According to the NOAA, anglers are in large part to blame for harming and killing dolphins because they toss their by-catch and discarded bait to them.

What's even more astonishing is that some mother dolphins have even been seen teaching their calves how to get food from humans rather than learn to hunt on their own in the wild.

"That's the domino effect we see, that the hand that feeds them may not see," Hortsman explained. "They don't see the changes in the dolphin's behavior."

That's where the "Keep Dolphins Wild" campaign comes in. Through targeted messaging, aerial banners and social media posts in areas known to be hotspots for unsafe and inappropriate behaviors with dolphins, biologists hope that the public and spring breakers especially will learn the impact that their seemingly innocent behavior has on these wild social animals.

One of the programs launched, called Dolphin SMART, encourages "responsible viewing" of the animals through guided tours, for example.

While this issue is not a new one, experts are now growing increasingly worried due to the surge in fatal incidents with dolphins.

According to National Geographic, like other marine species, dolphins are threatened by commercial fishing and can become mortally entangled in nets and other fishing equipment. Some suffer for days and weeks before dying of infections.

Despite their cute and friendly appearance, the NOAA urges Gulf Coast spring breakers this year to refrain from approaching these wild animals, and simply admire them from afar. Doing so can help ensure that these dolphins we know and love continue to survive and thrive.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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