Warm waters are drawing more bottlenose dolphins to South Jersey, with beachgoers and sightseers on charter boats reporting frequent sightings since May, experts said.
This also is a stark contrast with three summers ago, when a virus outbreak killed hundreds of dolphins along the East Coast.
“We find dolphins 95 percent of the time and find playful pods from Longport to Brigantine,” said Capt. Jeff George, 47, owner of Atlantic City Cruises, which operates a daily dolphin-watching excursion out of Gardner’s Basin in Atlantic City.
Not only are there more sightings, but it appears pods themselves are growing bigger with more young dolphins swimming alongside adults, he said.
“People love seeing wild dolphins in their natural habitat,” he said.
Barring disease, there is no reason for dolphins not to thrive off South Jersey, said Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal
Stranding Center in Brigantine.
“The water is warm, the quality is great, and as long as bait fish remain plentiful for the dolphins to feed on, they should do very well,” Schoelkopf said.
So far this year, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center has responded to 12 strandings of bottlenose dolphins, most recently successfully rescuing a dolphin stranded in a creek in Middle Township on Aug. 7.
In 2013, 151 dolphins were stranded on New Jersey beaches that year, according to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center.
The morbillivirus affects the brain, immune system and lungs of dolphins and is spread between mammals, including mothers and calves, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
None survived during what Schoelkopf called an “unusual mortality event.”
Before 2013, the last morbillivirus outbreak occurred in 1987, when 700 dolphins washed up dead along the East Coast.
“After a morbillivirus event, the surviving animals have built up a natural immunity to the disease,” he said.
This year there has been no unusual dolphin mortality along the East Coast, he said.
Not only is the dolphin population healthy, but the mammals are spending more time than usual in South Jersey’s waters.
“We were still seeing dolphins in our waters through the middle of last November, three to four weeks later than usual,” George said.
The average November ocean temperature off South Jersey is only about 55 degrees, according to the National Weather Service,
But last November, the ocean remained as warm as 60 degrees through the first 10 days of the month.
“As the climate and the waters both warm, we’re seeing manatee and sea turtles moving farther north, and dolphins are spending more time in northern waters,” Schoelkopf said.
Ideal water temperatures for dolphins are in the 70s, according to Schoelkopf, but he added that range can extend as low as 60 and as high as 80 degrees.
This year, the Atlantic Ocean water is even warmer than last.
Meteorologist Jim Eberwine, who has closely monitored the water temperatures off South Jersey for decades, confirmed that an 83.3 degree ocean temperature off the Steel Pier in Atlantic City on Wednesday evening was the warmest ever recorded.
“The water is not only warmer, but that warmth extends deeper than normal too,” Eberwine said
This means the warmer temperatures may last well into this fall, helping dolphins stay longer in South Jersey before heading south to the Carolinas and Florida for winter.