Sunday, June 14, 2009

Two dolphin species gain state recognition

And the winner of the battle between the North Atlantic right whale and the bottlenose dolphin is ... Alice Drive Elementary School.

It was the efforts of Alice Drive students that ultimately led to the passage of legislation recognizing three official state animals — the bottlenose dolphin as the state marine mammal, the Northern right whale as the state migratory marine mammal and the wood duck, also known as the summer duck, as the state duck.

“It was because of our efforts that two mammals got recognized,” said Lynn Eldridge, the art teacher at Alice Drive who started the schoolwide project on the Northern right whale. “If it wasn’t for us, bottlenose dolphins wouldn’t have gotten recognized. Now, they both are.”

All they were originally after was recognizing one, the Northern right whale, which has been known to give birth to calves off the South Carolina coast as it migrates from its summer home of New England to its winter home of Florida.

“I was completely impressed with what all the young folks at Alice Drive had done and all the effort put into it by the principal, Mrs. (Lynn) Eldridge and others,” said Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, who sponsored the original bill that would have recognized the Northern right whale as the state marine mammal and who helped forge the compromise in the last couple of days of the legislative session.

“We all know the reason that teachers do that is to give students something to identify with and, hopefully, get them involved in the learning process,” he continued. “She certainly did a great job with that.”

The students found out about the compromise Wednesday morning. Principal Debbie Thomas made sure to include in the daily announcements that the bill became law without Gov. Mark Sanford’s signature.

For the most part, they were happy with the outcome. But some students said the bottlenose dolphin doesn’t deserve the recognition because it is not endangered, and it pales in size and majesty to the Northern right whale.

“I was disappointed we had to split with the bottlenose dolphin because we started the whole thing with the right whale,” said David Cooper, 10, a fourth-grader. “We put a whole lot of work into it, and (the bottlenose dolphin supporters) came in halfway through it.”

It all started as a desire on the part of art teacher Lynn Eldridge to decorate a large wall in the cafeteria. It evolved into a schoolwide project in which students of all grade levels learned about the Northern right whale and other South Carolina symbols. Leventis agreed to sponsor the legislation after visiting the school in December and being impressed with the students’ work.

They came up not only with murals of whales, and facts about them, on school walls, but also a song and dance.

Leventis introduced the bill Jan. 14. But two weeks later, Sen. George E. “Chip” Campsen III, R-Charleston, introduced a rival bill to name the bottlenose dolphin as the state marine mammal. Both measures ended up languishing in committee throughout the legislative session.

Then, in the final week, Leventis noticed a bill that would name the wood duck the official state duck. He approached Campsen about adding amendments to that measure that would recognize both mammals. After some negotiation, they came to the compromise, and the amendments were included on the bill that was approved by both the House and Senate on May 21, the last day of the session.

Campsen said Wednesday he was satisfied with the compromise, but he wanted to make clear his motives. Leventis had theorized that the South Carolina Ports Authority was behind the bottlenose dolphin drive because in its view, naming the Northern right whale as the state’s official marine mammal would hurt business. The authority has opposed federal regulations passed in December requiring ships not to approach a Northern right whale any closer than 500 feet except in limited circumstances.

“Everyone who thinks I’m a stooge of the Ports Authority ought to look at my opposition to rail access on the northern end of the port,” Campsen said. “This purely flows from my lifetime of passionate experience in our marine ecosystem. I hunt in it, surf in it, have spent my whole life in it. I just felt like we should have something more endemic to the area as the state marine mammal. ... And the whale really is a migratory mammal.”

In the end, the students said they learned a lot about the legislative process and the need to be persistent.

“If you want something, you’ve got to keep going,” said fifth-grader Christian Hithe, 11.

Contact Staff Writer Jason Wermers at or (803) 774-1295.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"