In St. Joe Bay, spring 2004, there were dead bottlenose dolphins as far as the eye could see, over 100 in just one month. A year later, researchers are back on the bay, still baffled by the mass mortality.
Brian Balmer, graduate research assistant at UNCW, says, "If it happened in Sarasota, the entire population would have been wiped out."
The locals call them dolphin huggers, but don't be fooled by the name. Brian, Stephanie and Michelle never actually touch the dolphins. They track them.
Using radio tags, the team can spot a school, slow their speed, and start clicking away. Still, questions remain like why two unusual mortality events occurred in the past five years, one in ‘99, the other last spring.
What researchers know is red tide is likely a factor, but what they still don't know are the other variables involved, variables this team hopes to uncover one dolphin at a time.
Michelle Barbieri, a UNCW researcher, says, "It obviously takes a village. It's one big puzzle."
It’s a puzzle scientists from across the nation are trying to piece together.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is financing this study. Researchers say it could take another five years of prodding until the mystery is unveiled.