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A Dolphin Tale

Alumnus Makes Studying Orange County’s Bottlenose Dolphins His Life’s Work

Nov. 26, 2012

A college student’s question launched Dennis L. Kelly’s nearly four decades of bottlenose dolphin research.

The recent graduate — he'd earned a bachelor’s degree in biological science in 1971 and a master's degree in biology three years later — was teaching a biology course at Orange Coast College in 1974. The more he talked about dolphins, the more his students perked up. “They were actually listening,” he remembered.

Then came the moment that changed his research focus from prickleback fish and tuna to all things dolphin. 

“This one student said, ‘you’ve been talking about dolphins for an hour. What about the ones I see every day when I go surfing in Newport Beach?’ ” recalled Kelly, professor and chair of OCC’s Marine Science Department.

He didn’t believe dolphins could be observed in significant numbers so near the Orange County coastline, so he set out to prove his hypothesis.

Instead, Kelly observed dolphins indeed swimming near the coast, and he’s been documenting their numbers and their movements ever since, recording his findings in more than a dozen journal articles.

From 1978 to 2002, Kelly and his students, cruised Orange County’s coastline from Seal Beach to San Onofre 37 times. They spotted dolphins near the shore on 35 of those trips. In all, they counted 350 bottlenose dolphins, distinguishing the individual marine mammals through photographs of their dorsal fins, which, like human fingerprints, are unique.

That initial census of Orange County’s bottlenose dolphins was the first step, Kelly said. “Getting them recognized in the scientific literature means nobody can deny that the dolphins are part of the ecology. And, because they are part of the coastal ecosystem, any time people want to do anything affecting the shores, they have to consider how the dolphins will be impacted.”

The ongoing research is part of the Coastal Dolphin Survey Project that Kelly founded in 1978 as a way to involve students in undergraduate research. The project’s goals, he said, are to educate students about research methods, design and operation; determine the population dynamics, biology and ecology of the coastal bottlenose dolphin; and use the knowledge gained to educate and inform the public about Orange County’s dolphins.

Students call the project a valuable experience.

It was for Larissa M. Clary, a former student of Kelly’s who now works as a research analyst at the Institute for Applied Marine Ecology at Cal State Monterey Bay. She said she owes Kelly for her success.

“I showed up at OCC in 2003, not knowing exactly what I wanted to do,” Clary said, adding that, as a student, she worked on the project and was manager of the Orange Coast College Public Aquarium under Kelly’s guidance.

“Dennis really fostered my desire to become a marine scientist,” she said. “When I transferred to Monterey Bay, my professors couldn’t believe how much marine ecology research experience I had. Now, I'm planning on applying for graduate school and eventually become a teacher, like Dennis. He is the best.”

Speaking for Dolphins

For Kelly, it’s about preparing future scientists and educating the public about dolphins.

“I want to do my job really, really well,” he said. “I want to know the dolphins better than they know themselves and speak on their behalf.”

In 2004, Kelly spotted two dolphins in Newport Harbor and observed them for several months as they lived off the fish there. But, their Newport Harbor residency was short-lived as the larger of the pair turned up dead. Weeks later, the smaller one died.

“It was the first time I had seen dolphins in the harbor,” Kelly said, adding that the necropsy conducted on the smaller one determined it had died of multiple conditions, including hypothermia and starvation.

The dolphin “was loaded with pollutants that caused its blubber to thin so much it could not survive,” he said, his voice rising as he fired off a list of the lethal contaminants: “DDT, a pesticide that was banned in 1971; PCBs; Tributyltin; and mercury.”

The toxins were “off the charts,” Kelly explained. In decades past, he said, necropsies of other dolphins found on and off Orange County’s beaches had determined that they also had died of chemical contaminants, but at lower levels.

In Southern California, he said, sanitation districts collect and treat 2.5 billion gallons of sewage daily, and untreated sewage often ends up in harbors, where more and more dolphins are entering and feeding.

“You can warn people not to swim inside harbors and not to eat the fish,” he said, but it’s tougher to get the message to the dolphins, whose lives, habitat and behavior never cease to fascinate the 64-year-old scientist.

At present, Kelly, fellow scientists and students are looking at dolphins entering the harbors and why they are doing so.

“We want to find out why and how much interaction they’re having with humans,” Kelly said. “We want to find out what it means in the long term.”

Dolphin Birthing Circles

As Kelly reflects on his decades of studying dolphins, he recalls a December day in 1982 when he spotted six dolphins methodically circling a seventh at Crystal Cove in Laguna Beach. He watched the circle for about two hours, until the six forming the circle dove in nose first.

“Then, they popped up to the surface with a baby and the dolphins seemed to be caressing it, like loving relatives, making sure it was OK before swimming off together,” Kelly said. “It was amazing.”

He has since witnessed the dolphin birthing circle 11 more times, but never had a camera with him to document the phenomenon.

Former Orange County Register science writer Gary Robbins wrote about Kelly’s experience in 1996, prompting an 83-year-old woman to donate a video she had of the Crystal Cove birthing circle.

Kelly then had undeniable evidence. He showed the video at science conferences, played it for his students, shared it with fellow scientists and wrote an article about it for the American Cetacean Society Spyhopper quarterly newsletter.

CSUF Set the Course

Kelly credits his CSUF professors — Steven N. Murray, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs; Michael H. Horn, professor of biological science; and the late Charles C. Lambert, emeritus professor of biological science — for fueling his desire to become a marine life researcher.

“With Dr. Murray, I studied seaweed and seaweed reproduction in the lab,” Kelly said. “Dr. Horn taught me about prickleback fish, these little eel-like fish, and I got to participate in his research. And, Dr. Lambert, my thesis adviser, taught me about the reproduction and growth cycle of turnicates, or sea squirts, in Newport Harbor.”

Inspired by his own experience with undergraduate research, he makes a point of involving his OCC students in his dolphin studies, co-writing journal articles and co-presenting at conferences with students and fellow scientists nationwide.

“I want my students to get real research experience, like I did at Cal State Fullerton,” he said. “I owe everything I am today to Cal State Fullerton. All the things that got me my job at OCC, I learned at Cal State Fullerton.”

Besides teaching and serving as director of OCC’s Coastal Dolphin Survey Project, Kelly also is director of the Orange Coast College Public Aquarium, located in the Lewis Center for Applied Science in Costa Mesa. He’s helmed the aquarium since 1974 when he was hired to teach at OCC. As director, he leads education programs, and he trains students to lead tours and discussions about marine science.

Murray called Kelly “an inspiration to several generations of students.”

“I remember Dennis Kelly’s time at Fullerton well and am proud of his achievements,” Murray said. “Dennis has for some time been interested in dolphins and their use of the Orange County coastline and is well-known in local circles for his passion for conserving marine species and habitats.”

A former Kelly student turned faculty colleague, OCC marine science professor Karen M. Baker, remembers seeking his advice in 1994, at the end of a weeklong whale-watching research training trip.

“I went to his office and said, ‘Dennis, I want to do what you do.’ And, he set me on the path with his ability to tell stories that make the science come alive,” she said. “His students love him. I’ve never met a former student of his who didn’t gush: ‘Dennis Kelly is the best teacher I ever had.’ ”

The simple fact, Kelly said, is that “marine science is exciting, and I have the best job.”

By: Mimi Ko Cruz, 657-278-7586

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