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Ocean Mysteries HERA

October 1, 2012 

Making Ocean Mysteries:
Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Health and Environmental Risk Assessment

Written by Greg Bossart, V.M.D., Ph.D.; Georgia Aquarium Senior Vice President, Animal Health, Research and Conservation, Chief Veterinary Officer and Veterinary Pathologist

This year, special federal permission was granted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to allow the Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin production crew to film the 2012 Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Health and Environmental Risk Assessment (HERA) for its season two premiere. In late June, the crew traveled to Indian River Lagoon (IRL) to join Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University and our team from Georgia Aquarium in this project, which characterizes dolphin health and studies dolphins as sentinels for ecosystem and human health. In the latter instance, HERA is studying dolphins as the proverbial 'miner's canary', a type of early warning system for environmental change that could impact public health. This summer, 18 dolphins were examined and safely released in spite of 3 steady days of rain and high winds from Tropical Storm Debby.

Below, you will find a few behind-the-scenes photos and some of my thoughts describing the experience of working with the Ocean Mysteries team.

In this photo, Jeff Corwin and I head out to Indian River Lagoon (IRL) where HERA takes place. IRL is one of North America’s most diverse estuaries with more than 2,200 different species of animals and 2,100 species of plants that occupies about 1/3 of the east coast of Florida. It serves as a spawning and nursery ground for many different species of oceanic and lagoon fish and shellfish. The IRL has about 1,000 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, which appear to spend most of their lives in the IRL.

I like this photo because it shows the incredible amount of teamwork that goes into making a project like this happen. You’ll see in the foreground, the team is gently leading the dolphin to the veterinary boat where Jeff and I wait to bring the dolphin aboard for health assessments. Up to 80 people and 14 boats were part of the daily the HBOI- FAU HERA project team, which included staff from Georgia Aquarium, Georgia Aquarium's Conservation Field Station, Ocean Embassy, Florida Atlantic University, University of Miami School of Medicine, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Colorado State University, University of Georgia, University of Florida, SPAWAR, Sea World, Busch Gardens and others.


This photo shows the team assessing a dolphin while Jeff interviews Steve McCulloch, HERA program manager, and me about the process. You’ll see multiple team members using sponges to keep the dolphin wet and cool. Assessments included blood draws, blowhole samples, tooth checks, ultrasounds and urine and fecal samples. The samples collected from dolphins in 2012 are now being analyzed by over 40 HERA scientific collaborators, which in turn will be added to the substantial HERA database. Since the project started in 2003 over 280 dolphins have been examined and released. HERA has documented novel emerging disease, zoonotic disease, antibiotic resistant bacteria, immune dysfunction and high levels of some toxins including mercury in IRL dolphins.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these photos and will tune in this weekend to learn more about the HERA project on Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin on ABC, check local listings.

Learn more about Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin, click here.

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