Trailed and often surrounded by big boats, small boats and personal watercraft, a pod of dolphins moved back and forth in the upper Shrewsbury River late Friday afternoon.
When the dolphins neared the gateway to Sandy Hook Bay and the sea the Highlands-Sea Bright bridge they reversed direction, and several of the vessels did so too, only to be joined by more jet skiers and small boats.
A State Police marine patrol boat that had been in the river about 90 minutes earlier wasn’t visible.
Meanwhile, on land, some people expressed anger about the boaters and what they considered harassment of the dolphins. “I can’t believe how incredibly selfish they’re being,” said a woman waiting in the parking lot at McLoone’s Rum Runner restaurant, a favorite gathering spot for dolphin watchers.
Kerry Gowan, Sea Bright’s animal control officer, said she’d seen three people jumping off a boat into the river where the dolphins were swimming Thursday evening, and when she called to them to stop, “they flipped me off.” So she called the State Police.
“We’re now taking registration numbers” off boats, she said. Fines for harassing the dolphins start at $2,000 and can include an immediate seizure of a vessel, she said.
“The most danger they face right now is from the boats trying to get too close to them,” Gowan said. “The main message we want to get out is, ‘please leave them alone.'”
Meanwhile, the Asbury Park Press quotes marine experts as saying the dolphins are behaving normally and eating well.
“They’re feeding. We saw fish in their mouths. They have bunker (menhaden), and bunker is one of their favorite foods,” said Annie Gorgone, a marine mammal expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration laboratory at Beaufort, N.C. “If the buffet’s open, are you going to leave?”
Gorgone identified the animals as coastal dolphins, and said they were displaying normal feeding and social behavior, including an occasional leap, to the delight of spectators in boats and backyards along the river.
“I’ve seen the public is starting to behave. They’re keeping quiet and keeping their distance,” said Don McMillan of the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center laboratory at Sandy Hook. But wildlife workers are still hoping the dolphins will move out of the river by next week, before Independence Day weekend brings on a surge of boat traffic in the crowded channel.
“We’re calling a 50-yard (exclusion) zone around them. You can’t feed them; you can’t get in the water with them; you can’t harass them,” McMillan said. Violating the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act can bring up to a $10,000 fine, he said.
With the weekend getting off to a start, visitors were gathering at McLoone’s, drawn as much perhaps by the presence of television news trucks as by word of the rolling, occasionally leaping mammals.
Three women from Old Bridge said they’d come down to spend the day on the beach specifically because they might get a chance to see the animals, they told Mayor Maria Fernandes, who was waiting to be interviewed by a producer for the Today show.