Scientist leads forensics on dolphins, whales
FOLLY BEACH -- The carcasses have been floating in for nearly two weeks now, bloated and decomposing. What's left of the dolphins has been found in the Stono and Kiawah rivers, on the Isle of Palms, Fripp Island and Waites Island.
Lives on the Sea
A series looking at how the coast and the ocean off the Lowcountry are changing, and what that means for a region where people have made a life and a living for generations in tune with the sea.
When the call came in, Wayne McFee was having one of those days. His only permanent staff member and two others were out on a boat in the South Edisto River, looking for the remains of the sixth dead bottlenose dolphin spotted in the past nine days. Meanwhile, another carcass had washed up, this one on Folly Beach.
McFee is the National Ocean Service's marine mammal stranding program scientist for the region. His job is necropsy, the autopsy work on ocean animals that end up in the tidal wash. He is the "CSI" guy who goes out when the big bodies float in.
To him, the importance of the work is simple. A dolphin that dies because of contamination or a virus can be bad news for people who live along the coast. Because the sea mammals are so close to humans in some ways, they are a prime "canary in the coal mine" of trouble in the water.
"They eat fish; we eat fish. They can be a good indication of what's going on in the ocean, tell us something we might be concerned with for our own health," he said.
"They are sentinels of health for the ecosystem," said Rob Young, the Coastal Carolina University marine science professor who runs a network of volunteers who respond to strandings on the coast.
The program at Fort Johnson used to have a staff of 15. Because of repeated federal budget cuts to environmental programs, it's down to two.
The dolphin had washed up to a wood groin. It looked like it was nestled there, lying on its side, one tail fluke curled over the other like crossed legs. He was a big guy, a male more than 7 feet long.
You couldn't smell it at first. The unsightly colors caught your eye, blotchy red and slimy yellow. The dorsal fin was in tatters like hanging moss. The flippers were decomposed to the bone, the mouth eaten away to the jawbone. Then the odor hit -- that reek of rotting fish. Flies flicked on and off like they weren't sure they wanted it. This one wasn't going back to the lab. It was too far gone.
"Nasty," McFee said after stepping around the dolphin for his first close look. The body obviously had been floating offshore for a while before coming in. "That's the way it's been all year." Winds have been pushing in dolphins that died at sea.
McFee has been doing this for two decades now. He has close-cropped hair, a businesslike demeanor and a deadpan humor. He looks like a guy in a forensics lab on TV; he might as well be. Some 40 dolphins and 10 whales strand on South Carolina beaches each year and they all get autopsied.
Only about half of them are in any shape, location or size to be hauled back to the lab for a full forensics workup. The other half get cut up on the beach then hauled off for burial. Even the ones found thrashing in the surf usually are too sick to make it.
The tape measure came first out of the black bag with the medical staff symbol on it. Then came the autopsy knife. McFee started by shearing off skin samples for genetic tests.
A flipper was removed for comparison studies, then the head, cut away clean like a fillet knife would take it off a catch. The head will be cleaned down to the skull, again to be used for comparison testing. There are two kinds of bottlenose dolphins around, coastal and offshore. Skull measurements will tell which one this is.
One of the network volunteers, Danielle Peterson, joined McFee and was taking notes.
"Tell him about the beetles," she said wryly when a visitor asks about the skull. "They were a rock band in the 60s," McFee deadpanned.
These beetles are a different band. Thousands on thousands of them wait back at the lab, kept in tanks that look like refrigerators on their backs. When it comes to stripping a carcass to a skeleton, nothing eats like a beetle.
"Might want to stand back. She's gonna blow," McFee said as he cut the intestines. Blood and gas spurted out, but not a lot. The intestines looked like hot dogs, the stomach like a turkey leg quarter, the liver like a rubber bag. McFee asked Peterson to note the fibrin tags on the liver, flecks of tissue left by parasites, the adhesions on the lungs.
But there's not much chance McFee will be able to pinpoint what killed this dolphin.
"When they're like this, and the organs are all mush, there's really not a whole lot we can ascertain," he said. "When they're so decomposed you just can't find a cause of death."
When a cause of death can be determined, it's most often a bacterial infection, a deep cut that abscessed. When the cause of death can be linked to humans -- about 25 percent of the time -- it's most often from an entanglement and usually with crab pots.
The yellow bag
Marine mammal strandings along the South Carolina coast tend to spike in the spring and fall each year, when migrating animals are on the move. But in the past few years, strandings have spiked in mid-winter. In 2010, a pygmy sperm whale and four dolphins washed up the same week in early March
The most likely explanation is the same cold that has led to mass fish kills along the beaches, McFee said. The cold depletes the shallows of food-fish schools for the dolphin. Dolphins that already are sick can't catch enough to sustain themselves, so they weaken and gradually die, sometimes of pneumonia.
Young's network relies on McFee, and like the NOS program itself, depends on uncertain federal funds. For the network, it's competitive grants. McFee relies on the volunteers, state wildlife officers who sometimes boat him out to islands, and impromptu help.
"To cover this entire coast with two or three people is difficult. But we do it," he said.
The head went into a big yellow bag, yellow indicating it still needed to be cleaned up. Other remains went into a big white bag. McFee packed up; he was done there. A backhoe loader had maneuvered down to the beach and waited at a little distance. He signaled the crew over and they dug a deep burial spot. Then the loader picked up the dolphin and put it away.
They were not government workers. They were a CDI Homes construction crew from a nearby site. They had the equipment and agreed to give some help.