What to do

If you see a stranded dolphin or whale:

Don't approach it or let pets approach it. Don't try to push the animal back into the water.

The morbillivirus isn't contagious, 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 or pets.

Don't wade into 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.

ISLE OF PALMS - Becca Lovett had just started her morning beach run Tuesday when she saw town public safety officers surrounding a dead dolphin that had washed up on the beach.

The carcass was one of at least three that have washed ashore in South Carolina in the past three days, and the ninth death in seven days, just when marine mammal biologists had hoped a lethal virus outbreak was settling down for the winter.

"It's a sad thing to find," Lovett said.

At least 28 bottlenose dolphins have been found dead in the past week along the Southeast coast as a whole.

"From North Carolina to northern Florida it's still pretty heavy," said Wayne McFee, National Ocean Service marine mammal stranding program scientist.

Biologists can't confirm that the virus killed the dolphin until pathology tests are run, and only a percentage of the dolphins recovered will be tested.

But since the virus first showed up here earlier in the fall, 48 dolphins have died - about as many as could be expected to be found all year in an average year. Ten have been found from Kiawah to Dewees islands near Charleston.

The overall death total for the year is 103 in South Carolina, the worst year on record. They are among hundreds of deaths in the region, and part of the worst year on record for the entire East Coast, where nearly 1,000 dolphins have been found dead, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The morbillivirus, related to canine distemper, is considered the major cause - and the outbreak isn't anywhere near over. A second wave of deaths is expected in the spring.

The deaths could have a serious impact on the species.

About 10,000 bottlenose dolphins are thought to roam the Southeast coast; the numbers along South Carolina and Georgia have been estimated between 6,000 and 7,000.

Isle of Palms Public Safety Officials estimated that the dolphin discovered Tuesday to be about 6 feet long and 500 pounds, Lovett said.

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 or pets.

People are urged to keep away from stranded dolphins or whales and contact the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Morbillivirus outbreaks occur from time to time. The virus is always present; exposed survivors develop immunity and following generations lose it. But animals weakened from other stresses are more susceptible to it.

Dolphins, the sea mammal maybe most related to humans as a species, are considered a "sentinel," an indicator detecting threats to ocean, and human, health. The virus is causing only one of three unusual bottlenose dolphin die-offs occurring at the same time along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. That is unheard of, and has alarmed mammal pathologists.

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