Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dolphin sighted in Channel raises concerns

She was loping down the levee, halfway through her 10-mile jog, when a little girl standing to the side said:

"There's a dolphin in the Delta!"

Yeah, right, Janet Dial thought, her eyes scanning the Stockton Deep Water Channel.

Bottlenose beauty

Stockton's flippered friend is said to be a bottlenose dolphin, one of the most well-known species of oceanic mammals. Some facts:

• Bottlenose dolphins range in length from 6 to 12 feet; the Stockton dolphin was said by witnesses to be about 5 feet.

• Some populations live just off the Pacific Coast and are commonly seen by wave-riding surfers.
• Dolphins are most often found in groups of two to 15, making it even more puzzling how a single dolphin could end up 90 miles inland.

• Threats include fishing gear like nets and trawls, as well as exposure to pollutants. Dolphins are still harvested in Japan and Taiwan, but are safeguarded in America by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Source: NOAA Fisheries

Then she saw the dorsal fin.

Federal wildlife officials and a rescue group confirmed Wednesday that a bottlenose dolphin has taken up residence - for the past several days, at least - in the brackish channel. It was spotted Saturday off the Brookside levee south of Buckley Cove; it was reportedly seen again Tuesday near the Port of Stockton.

A dolphin might wander this far inland every five to 10 years, one biologist said. Hopefully, that bottlenose soon points back toward the ocean; if not, a rescue may be in order.

"We let them do their thing until it looks like their health is taking a turn for the worse," said Joe Cardaro, a Long Beach-based biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

It's very difficult to herd marine mammals, as experts learned in 2007 when persuading whales Delta and Dawn to forgo their trip up the Sacramento River. Capture with a net is an option for a smaller dolphin, but that could cause undue stress, Cardaro said.

He could offer few clues Wednesday as to what lured the dolphin to Stockton. They usually travel in groups, and it's rare for them to linger even in San Francisco Bay, not to mention 90 miles from sea.

Dial was exhilarated yet concerned after her Saturday sighting. Just when it seemed the dolphin was pointed downstream, a boat would blow past, and he'd change direction.

"He was so confused," Dial said. "It was actually kind of sad. It made me want to jump in there and help."

Walking her dog on the same levee, Susan Filios ran home to get her camera.

"It was exciting to see, at first," she said. "Then you're like, 'Gee, I hope the little guy gets back to salt water.' "

There were no indications that the dolphin was sick, officials said, though one witness said it seemed a bit lethargic, and it certainly wasn't doing any Sea World acrobatics as it came up for air every few minutes.

The Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center, which rescues mostly seals and sea lions, says its volunteers will watch out for the dolphin and its well-being.

"The longer it's in there, the less beneficial it'll be for the animal, but if it's swimming around and full of energy, there's not much you're going to be able to do," Cardaro said.

Considering its location, San Joaquin County seems to have more than its share of marine visitors, but these stories often end sadly. Just last month, a sea lion was struck and killed on Interstate 5 near Lodi; in 2007, a sea lion named Happy died after waddling into a cow shed at a Banta dairy.

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"