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Do My Eyes Deceive Me? A Captain's View of Dolphin Health in the Gulf

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As a charter boat captain on the Alabama Gulf, I have seen a lot taking people on tours to see our magnificent federally protected dolphins. But hurricanes, red tides and algae blooms have not been nearly as devastating as the oil that's impacted these beautiful animals since the BP oil blowout more than two years ago.

Seeing is believing, and my eyes are not what they used to be after I've endured countless eye infections and other ailments since BP unleashed more than 200 million gallons of oil into our waters. Our air and water is still contaminated. For years I've watched the way the Gulf water ebbs and flows, her movement drifting like air through my lungs. But now the ocean moves differently, her beauty now blemished by an ugly brown foam and sudsy residues stirred up, evidence of each passing boat.

Life changed forever on April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil well blew up, creating the largest environmental catastrophe in US history and altering life forever for marine life and coastal residents alike. I've seen the impacts firsthand: a reduction in the number of dolphins in the Back Bays near my home of Orange Beach, Ala. Bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico are experiencing the longest running Unusual Mortally Event (UME) ever recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). According to scientists, if dolphins here were hospital patients, they would be in the Intensive Care Unit. Those that survive have to live in water day after day tainted by oil and Corexit, the toxic dispersant used to sink the oil.

Currently at least 749 cetaceans -- dolphins and whales -- have died, some held in freezers as evidence in the criminal investigation against BP. But these are just the tip of the iceberg. Scientists estimate that for every dead dolphin found there are many more that perish undetected -- perhaps as many as 50 die for each one discovered. That means there are thousands of dead dolphins unaccounted for, perhaps impacting the survival of dolphin pods in many areas of the Gulf.

But it's not just the record number of dead dolphins that makes me worry. I have witnessed a change in the emotions and behaviors of dolphins in my area, dolphins whose emotions and personalities I have come to recognize individually. They are like family to me, a family that has been hit by a chronic illness over the past two years.

Dolphins near me no longer engage in essential social behaviors, such as playing and recreational mating. These are activities I used to see daily on my charter trips that are critical to their survival. Today dolphins mostly are traveling and hunting for prey, their minds no longer focused on playing and mating.

Dolphins are the ocean's most intelligent creatures, and they are not so different from us. As we have struggled to survive the economic impacts of the BP disaster, dolphins too are under increasing stress to provide food for their families. And if dolphins are struggling in the ocean environment, what does that mean for humans who depend on the sea for their survival, too?

Now it is up to you and me to change our behaviors and create a sustainable environment for dolphins and humans alike. After one of the nation's greatest environmental catastrophes, Congress has done nothing to pass better ocean drilling safety laws to ensure oil companies like BP never do this again. Meanwhile, oil companies are drilling in the Gulf in deeper and more dangerous waters. We also need to find better ways to clean up the oil instead the Coast Guards standard practice of using chemical dispersants that can have unknown effects on our ocean environment,potentially making oil spills even more toxic.

BP says things are returning to normal, but that's not what the dolphins are telling me. My eyes don't deceive me, and from what I'm seeing this is far from over. BP needs to clean up its mess and continued oil pollution cannot be tolerated in our seas. After all, humans cannot live on profit alone. Our bodies need clean water as much as my beloved Alabama back-bay dolphins. They are our true canaries in the coal mine. And I fear we are all going to pay with our health and survival if we continue to ignore them.

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