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The Bottlenose Invasion

Over 900 sightings this past year
 

The first time I fished in saltwater was a memorable experience. I had waded out from the shoreline with a spinning rod in one hand and a bag of squid in the other. Catching a small flounder within the first few minutes made me bolder until at last I was far from shore and chest-deep in the water.
    Then I saw the big, dark, triangular fin angling toward me through the water. My blood froze as I tried to backpedal toward a now impossibly distant beach.
    Then it broached the surface with a powerful thrust. Ahhch, I remember yelling out at the sight. My heart rate fell, almost to normal, and my face reddened. The tail fin, I had finally noticed, was horizontal.
    It was only a bottlenose dolphin.
    A second dolphin appeared behind the first, then a third, only a cast away, dipping beneath the water, then surfacing and blowing.
    Since that day I’ve made many an acquaintance with these fantastic creatures that often reach 12 feet in length, can weigh over a half ton, may live for 40 years or more and possess a brain larger than our own. Off Cape Hatteras I’ve seen a mother dolphin surfing my boat’s bow wave with her small baby coasting right along beside her, not an arm’s length away.
    Bottlenose dolphins are a mariner’s friend, especially when out of sight of land. To the Chesapeake, they’ve been infrequent visitors until recently.

On the Rebound
    A few days ago, my marine radio crackled out a message as I sat in my skiff trying to chum up the last of my rockfish limit just south of the Patapsco.
    “Calling U.S. Coast Guard, calling U.S. Coast Guard, this is the sailing vessel Aegis, come in please.”
    “This is U.S. Coast Guard, Aegis, over.”
    My fear of a potential problem faded as I heard “Reporting a pod of 40 to 50 dolphin about two miles due west of Love Point, over.”
    “Roger, Aegis, a pod of 40 to 50 dolphin, two miles west of Love Point.”
    The Coast Guard continued to announce the presence of the pod as a water-safety alert for boaters.
    Since June last year, there have been more than 900 reported sightings of dolphin in the Chesapeake. Those numbers are expected to increase. Recovering from a disease epidemic that hit hard in 2013, the Atlantic bottlenose population is finally growing. Seeing them as far up in the Bay as Baltimore Harbor is giving researchers hope that the dolphins are recovering nicely and that Maryland’s effort at cleaning up Bay waters is having a positive effect.
    Though most everyone welcomes the sight of these playful animals, they can also complicate fishing in the Bay. An average dolphin will consume up to 50 pounds of fish a day, so they are constantly on the hunt. When they locate a school of rockfish, their coordinated and effective behavior in capturing prey promptly causes our tasty stripers to seek safer and more distant locations.
    It is unlawful, as well as unconscionable, to harass or interfere with these intelligent, graceful mammals. To ensure their safety, NOAA requests that boaters maintain at least 150 feet of distance from dolphins and similar marine creatures that have little fear of — and in some cases an attraction to — human presence.