Eight-year-old Margaret Herman, the collar on her coat pulled tight against the stiff breeze, wasn't sure why she had to spend her Saturday staring at the choppy Pacific from the Newport Pier.
But her father knew, even if it would be years before the third-grader would appreciate it.
"I want her to be able to walk out here someday and tell her children that there are still dolphins in the ocean," Michael Herman said. "But to make it happen, I've got to do my share."
Herman was among 40 Orange Coast College students and volunteers who fanned out along the Orange County coast Saturday to look for bottlenose dolphins. In teams of two and three, the dolphin watchers stood on piers, bluff tops and jetties from south San Clemente to Bolsa Chica State Beach hoping to spy the playful marine mammals.
Attempt at Mass Sighting
Scientists say it was the first attempt at a mass sighting of dolphins off Southern California, a prime playground for the species. The purpose was to get a better idea of the size of the local dolphin population, and its range.
During the two-hour watch, three groupings, or pods, of dolphins were spotted, totaling an estimated 40 to 50 animals, Orange Coast College marine biologist Dennis Kelly said. The largest group was located less than a mile offshore from Golden West Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, one of the few areas along the coast where dolphins have been observed resting for long periods and giving birth to young, said Kelly, who organized Saturday's sighting.
"I am elated," he said later in the day. "In 10 years of research, this is the most pods we have identified in a single day."
Kelly, project director of the nonprofit Coastal Dolphin Survey Project, said Saturday was a "trial run" for what he hopes will be a massive sighting, stretching from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara, sometime next summer. He envisions volunteers, like those Saturday, positioned about a mile apart, using binoculars and telescopes to spot and record the dolphins' movements, behavior and size.
The observations, Kelly said, would be catalogued and used to monitor fluctuations in the animals' population. Biologists say increasing levels of pollutants, offshore oil and gas drilling, and commercial fishing in local coastal waters threaten the dolphins' fragile habitat like never before. Without knowing the dolphins' population, Kelly said, it will be hard to tell whether the species is thriving or dying.
Dolphins along the Southern California coast are the same species as those that washed onto beaches from New Jersey to Virginia last summer. Scientists blamed the deaths of more than 250 bottlenose dolphins on a common ocean bacteria, but they still do not know why the organism killed so many.
"Nobody really knows how devastating those deaths were to the future of the species," Kelly said. "That's why we need to get a good count along our coast."
Despite the obvious limitations of trying to spot the grayish-colored animals from land, Kelly and others say it may be the most cost-effective way to estimate their numbers. Aerial surveys are difficult because aircraft travel too fast over the dolphins for an accurate count. And getting enough boats in the water at the same time to conduct a census is too expensive for most oceanographic groups and research units.
"At some point, Kelly's land-base sightings may become the basis for future decisions about the bottlenose dolphin" and how to protect it, said Doug DeMaster, a marine mammal expert at the federal government's Southwest Fisheries Center in La Jolla. "It is an important step in learning why this species has been able to adapt to man's increasing presence."
The technique, DeMaster said, has been used to count killer whales in Prince William Sound in Alaska and migrating gray whales in the Santa Barbara-Channel Islands area.
Kelly, who has studied dolphins for nearly a decade, estimates that more than 600 of them may frequent the waters from San Diego to Santa Barbara, including 130 that are believed to live permanently off the Orange County shore.
Kelly and several San Diego biologists have even complied a "mug book" of 350 individual animals, identified by nicks, cuts and notches on their distinguishing dorsal fin.
Initially, scientists believed dolphins seen along the coast were traveling somewhere. Research, however, now suggests that the dolphins are really homebodies, whose range is often quite small.
On Saturday, Linda Martin and Betty Lyons were part of the sighting project aimed at confirming that theory.
The two Orange County women, strangers until then, stood watch at the Balboa Pier. From their perch atop Ruby's diner at the end of the pier, the women took turns peering through their binoculars.