August turned out to be a bad month for dolphins as officials tended to more strandings than normal.
“Usually we have one to two strandings in August,” said Suzanne Thurman, executive director of Marine Education Research and Rehabilitation Institute. “We more than doubled that amount.”
MERR volunteers tended to 22 dolphin strandings in August alone for a total of 32 so far this year, Thurman said. Volunteers have also found 13 sea turtles and a pygmy sperm whale that had been pregnant, both dead.
The majority of the bottlenose dolphins tested positive for a virus that scientists linked to dolphin deaths up and down the Atlantic Coast this summer.
The morbillivirus found in the dolphins is a similar strain as measles found in humans and distemper in dogs.
Many of the dolphins that washed ashore this summer were very decomposed, she said. After volunteers find a stranded dolphin, tissue samples are gathered and sent to labs across the country, each which conducts different tests.
“Scientists are trying to find out if this is a natural occurring virus,” Thurman said.
Some have suggested pollutants that flowed out to sea following last year's Hurricane Sandy may have contributed to the virus. While there is no proof that contaminated water has caused dolphin deaths, Thurman said, if a dolphin's immune system is depressed it makes them more susceptible to a virus such as morbillivirus.
“So much went into the water after Sandy,” she said. “It's just speculation what happened, or what may have ended up in the water.”
Whether the dolphin strain is communicable to humans is uknown, Thurman said.
However, she cautions people who come across a stranded dolphin to leave it alone and contact her stranding agency.
To report strandings and sightings, call MERR at 302-228-5029. For more information go to merrinstitute.org.