NEW ORLEANS (AP) — For seven years, a young dolphin has made his home in a canal in a residential community off the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, enchanting local residents, attracting flocks of boaters — and even, one man says, helping him back onto his jet watercraft after a fall.
But in the past year, the close encounters also have resulted in at least two people being bitten.
Wildlife officials say the dolphin isn’t dangerous, but getting too close to feed or pet him exposes boaters to unintended nips.
“We don’t think he’s, like, swimming up to bite people. He’s coming up to boats when people are in them,” said state Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Mandy Tumlin. “We think people may be trying to pet him or touch him and or feed him. He’s possibly associating hands with food.”
State and federal biologists are heading to Slidell, across the brackish lake from New Orleans, to spread the word that people shouldn’t try to play with or feed dolphins or any other wild animals for a variety of reasons. Violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, for example, is punishable by up to a year in jail and $100,000 in fines, said Allison Garrett, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Stacey Horstman, a NOAA Fisheries biologist, said dolphins are curious and social animals. Though naturally wary of people, they can learn to approach people and their boats — which, in turn, can lead not only to people getting bitten but to the dolphins getting tangled in nets or other fishing gear, or injured by the boats themselves.
The Slidell dolphin has a recognizable propeller scar, said Rosaria Sheppard, whose house is on Sunset Canal, where the dolphin lives. She said the dolphin was about 3 to 4 feet long when he first showed up with two adults in summer 2005, while she and her husband were building the house. The dolphin returned alone after Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005.
“The reason we know it’s the exact same dolphin is because when he was smaller his dorsal fin was hit by a propeller and had a little gouge in it. When he came back after Katrina he had the same mark,” she said.
Sheppard said a neighbor calls him Flipper, after the dolphin in the 1960s television series.
“I just call him ‘the dolphin,'” she said.
Her husband, Gregory Walters Jr., said he fell off their personal watercraft early last summer, when his wife made a turn he wasn’t balanced for. “As I was trying to paddle my way back … I felt him under my feet. Believe me when I say this: The first thing that went through my mind was, he was going to take a bite out of my leg, a bite out of my feet.”
Instead, he said, the dolphin stayed close underneath him until he could climb back on.
He said his niece was injured last year when the dolphin took her hand in his mouth while she and others at a Fourth of July party were swimming in the canal. Startled and afraid, she yanked her hand out. “It got caught on a tooth or something,” Walters said. She was treated at a nearby hospital and received stitches.
Tumlin said the only confirmed bites her agency knows about were in January and May of this year.
If people consistently stay at least 50 yards from the dolphin, keeping arms and hands in the boat if it approaches and never feeding it, eventually it will learn not to come near, Tumlin and Horstman said. Horstman said moving the dolphin would be the last choice. Dolphins choose their homes, so he’d likely return, she said.
Walters says he hasn’t seen many people feed the dolphin, but droves of outsiders have boated to the canal in recent years to see it. Many hit the water or the sides of their boats to get it to swim over, and it often swims close to boats and other watercraft without prompting.
The animals are known to frequent the eastern reaches of Lake Pontchartrain, near where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, because the lake’s salinity is higher there. They are a familiar sight in the nearby Mississippi Sound.
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