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Dolphins in John’s Pass

Dolphin researcher observes, protects a growing family near John’s Pass

By Emily Nipps, Times Staff Writer

The explosives were in place. TV cameras and crowds gathered to watch the first blast of the old John’s Pass Bridge. Wildlife officers, construction workers and bridge demolition experts stood by with walkie-talkies. “Ten … 9 … 8 … 7 … “ “A dolphin! There’s a dolphin!” screamed Ann Weaver, as several fins popped up near the bridge. The countdown stopped. At the time, August 2006, bridge workers didn’t know this woman. Maybe just another coastal resident who wanted to be a hero. They had no idea how intimately she knew these dolphins, or how devastating an underwater blast could be for her and 255 of her closest research subjects.

• • •

Few places in the world are as rich with marine life as the John’s Pass area. Some believe it’s because of the elaborate canals within the residential islands, ripe with little fish and crustaceans. It’s warm, shallow and friendly, with easy access to the Gulf of Mexico.

Paradise for bottlenose dolphins.

Ann Weaver, a 58-year-old animal behaviorist who moved here in 2003, saw opportunity in the John’s Pass bridge project.

Having studied dolphins at five sites around the world, she applied for a federal permit in 2004 to study the effect of bridge construction on local dolphins. Funded by a federal grant, the study will be filed with the U.S. government and go before scientific journals to be considered for publication.

Her research uniquely looks at a dolphin population before, during and after such construction.

“Humans are constantly doing things to the coastline,” Weaver said. “But it’s usually not until after the fact that we go, ‘Gee, we don’t have as many manatees as there used to be here.’ “

In 2005, she and her husband, John Heidemann, 58, set out on five years of detailed and painstaking documentation of the dolphins. A dozen times a month, they head out on a little powerboat and run the same six miles from their Isle of Capri home through Boca Ciega Bay up to the Tom Stuart Causeway.

They asked the St. Petersburg Times not to reveal specifics of the route, or the signal they use to alert dolphins of their boat.

After five years of riding the same route, writing a column about dolphins for a neighborhood paper and engaging her community, Weaver is well known for her work. Sometimes boats follow her and her husband. Sometimes they peel off and follow the dolphins.

Following or approaching dolphins is illegal without a permit, Weaver pointed out. It also interferes with her research.

“You have to live and let live,” she said.

Which is harder than it sounds when you begin recognizing the dolphins on first glance, knowing their triumphs and heartbreaks, and calling them your “kids.”

• • •

Weaver has identified about 255 dolphins who pass through the area, about half of whom are “resident” dolphins, while others come and go. She has about 62,000 photos of them — jumping from the water, cuddling with one another, close-ups of their fins and markings. Proof that they are who she says they are.

She named them, beginning with letters of the alphabet or combinations of letters. When she ran out of letters, she came up with names like Doodle, Candle, Schnoz, Midface, Oyster, Fugazi and Q-Ball. Sometimes it takes her years to figure out the sex.

They appear to recognize Weaver, flipping and jumping to show off, peering at her curiously when she wears a funny hat. She coos at them, laughs and yells “Higher!” when they leap through the air, playfully admonishes them when they disappear too long or act shy.

She never touches them or helps them.

“A good scientist would never do that,” she said.

Even when Juno got tangled up in fishing line, which dug into a fin, Weaver would only take notes. She was both fascinated and relieved when he showed up one day, free of the wire.

Weaver was devastated when Split had a baby and then watched the baby die the next day. Split pushed the dead baby around for a week, keeping other dolphins away. Then Split went into a depression and got dolphin pox before snapping out of it a year later.

In five years, Weaver has been exposed to an underwater soap opera that no one else in the Tampa Bay area has seen.

“It would be easy to make this stuff up,” she said.

But her copious notes, spreadsheets, photos and professional reputation back her up. She has logged analyses of dolphins and primates all over the world. Her 25-year career includes intense studies of whale behavior and the peacemaking skills of capuchin monkeys, but she does more conventional academic work, too. She teaches doctoral students statistics at Argosy University in Sarasota and recently published a book on the topic.

Still, it boggles the imagination to hear her speak of a pack of teenage dolphins all wearing sea grass “jewelry,” and a group of bulls breaking up from a huddle and playing “football.”

“You never want to anthropomorphize,” she said.

With animals as complex and sensitive and intelligent as dolphins, it’s difficult to create that distance. Even for a scientist.

• • •

The new $77 million John’s Pass Bridge was completed in December, more than four years after demolition began.

Few know how much care went into protecting wildlife, mainly manatees. State regulations require a wide safety zone around demolition sites, where a manatee cannot enter within 30 minutes of an explosion.

Sound or shock waves can easily deafen dolphins and manatees, which rely on hearing for safety, finding food and pretty much everything else. If the explosion is close enough, the shock waves can rupture an animal’s organs.

That’s why, on that day in August 2006, Weaver panicked.

“She thought she was helplessly watching an impending disaster,” said Bruce Hasbrouck, an environmental engineer assisting with the bridge project. Actually, workers already had stopped the countdown when Weaver screamed.

She called Hasbrouck a few days after the first blast and was relieved to learn that so many regulations and precautions were in place to protect manatees and her dolphins.

Over the years, Hasbrouck and Weaver talked at least once a month, and sometimes daily at the time of explosions or installation of pilings. Weaver never got in the way, Hasbrouck said. She only wanted information.

“She’s a good scientist,” he said. “Scientists have a hard time just collecting data, and she obviously has a lot of pride and satisfaction in what she does.”

Bridge builders in Florida are required to consider environmental factors on all projects, but Hasbrouck could not recall any that were so dolphin-centric.

“John’s Pass definitely has the highest density of them that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve done a lot of these projects,” he said. “The contractors said they saw them literally daily. They were starting to recognize them as well, by their markings and personality.”

With the bridge finished, Weaver is nearing the end of her studies. Her analysis, data and findings will be filed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The conclusion on whether the bridge affected the dolphins is complicated, but if it had to be simplified, it would be this:

It wasn’t so bad.

“I think we can conclude that they slowly got used to it,” she said.

At times, such as when the construction was the heaviest and loudest, the dolphin population dropped. But most of the dolphins returned, including some new ones.

Weaver wonders what the numbers will look like in the coming years, now that the bridge is finished, and she also has concerns about how the oil spill might affect the gulf’s food sources, which would also affect the dolphins.

She has applied for a federal permit to study the dolphins for five more years.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

[Last modified: Jan 23, 2011 11:30 PM]

 Copyright 2011 St. Petersburg Times