If you see a stranded dolphin

The morbillivirus isn’t contagious to humans, but a weakened dolphin can contract other infections. Stranded dolphins and other marine mammals are often sick, and some diseases can be spread to humans.

Don’t approach.

Don’t swim in the immediate area where a dolphin has just been stranded, particularly if you have an open sore or wound.

Contact the Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline, 1-800-922-5431.

Dolphins are dying here now too. The creatures are washing up on beaches as far south as Hilton Head Island, killed by the virus morbillivirus plaguing the East Coast pods.

Three of at least eight of the creatures found in South Carolina since September have tested positive for the disease, according to Wayne McFee, National Ocean Service marine mammal stranding program scientist. Four more are pending test results.

Humans aren’t susceptible to the virus, but a weakened dolphin can also have other diseases that humans are susceptible to. Beachgoers are cautioned not to approach struggling or dead dolphins and to contact the National Ocean Service marine mammal stranding program.

Most of the dolphins have been found in the Myrtle Beach area so far. But a recent Hilton Head stranding has tested positive; results are pending another recent stranding on Fripp Island, McFee said.

More than 800 dolphins have been found stranded so far this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the yearly average tends to be between 100 and 200. Of 120 tested, 92 percent had the virus, McFee said.

Dolphin deaths stretch from New York to South Carolina; most deaths have been in Virginia.

“We are concerned (the virus) will follow the southern migratory (dolphin) group as far as Florida,” said Stephanie Venn-Watson of the National Marine Mammal Foundation.

That’s what happened in 1987-88, the last time the virus killed the beloved bottlenose dolphin in numbers that alarmed biologists.

That outbreak eventually killed about 740 animals, including 42 of 79 deaths in South Carolina.

In 1987, the dead dolphins began washing up in South Carolina in late fall, then the numbers spiked again in March 1988, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report.

The dolphin is one of the beloved and sentinel creatures of the coast. More than 10,000 are thought to roam the Southeast; the numbers in South Carolina-Georgia have been estimated between 6,000 and 7,000.

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. The coast averages about 50 dolphin strandings, or deaths, per year.

The most recent alarming die-off in the Lowcountry occurred in 2011, when more than 30 animals stranded.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.