VIRGINIA BEACH -- Marine experts recovered three dead bottle-nose dolphins washed up in Hampton Roads, as they prepare for what could be another hectic season of dolphin strandings.
The three mammals were recovered in early April, but it’s unclear if their deaths are linked to a widespread virus that killed over a thousand dolphins along the east coast last year.
"They've identified the cause as morbillivirus, however, we don't know why, after 20 years, this is causing such a devastating effect to the bottle nose dolphins in this area," explained Maggie Lynott, the manager of the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Team.
Lynott’s team was established following the 1987-1988 unusual mortality event, where hundreds of bottle-nose dolphins were killed by morbillivirus.
The virus, similar to distemper in dogs, attacks a number of vital organs.
Since July 2013, crews have found more than 1200 dead dolphins along the east coast.
Similar to the ‘80s, Virginia saw the greatest impact with nearly 350 dead dolphins.
The majority of the deaths came during the summer months, when thousands of dolphins pass through coastal Virginia.
“This was just a very sharp peak, and three months of extremely, extremely difficult responding,” Lynott said. “Our volunteers and staff were putting in endless hours of response."
Last summer, dozens of researchers and volunteers came from as far away as Hawaii to help collect carcasses throughout Hampton Roads.
Crews worked around the clock dissecting them at the Aquarium’s Marine Animal Care Center.
“After that it's trying put all of that into a story and understand why something happened and why it could happen in the future," Lynott explained.
As researchers prepare for what could be another busy summer, they face another challenge.
Federal budget "sequestration" has cost Virginia's stranding response team a quarter of its $400,000 budget.
The group says the money is necessary to fund specialized training and equipment.
"Everybody loves dolphins,” said Joan Barns, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Aquarium. “It was a very unfortunate event but it tugged at people's hearts and purses thankfully, so they were very generous and they donated individually to us to help us go through this crisis."
Although scientists know a virus is killing the dolphins, they remain baffled on why it is showing up to such a great extent in Virginia. Finding the reason could be crucial for life in water and on land.
"They [dolphins] are sharing the same beaches we do, they're sharing the same oceans that we do, they're sharing the same food sources we do, so it's important to understand not only how they're affected but also how it could affect us too," Lynott said.
Tissue samples from the three recent dolphin carcasses have been sent to NOAA to test for traces of the morbillivirus.
The Virginia Aquarium advises the public not to touch any dolphins that wash ashore. Instead, they ask you to immediately report it by calling 757-385-7575.