Dolphins are showing up more often in local waters — to the delight of boaters

Some beachgoers may be sticking to the sand after recent reports of shark sightings on the South Shore, but those venturing out onto the water in recent weeks have been treated to spectacular sightings of other marine wildlife.

As she set out for a sail with charter guests aboard July 29, Captain Liz Gillooly spotted a pod of about 50 dolphins swimming in Gardiners Bay.

“We turned around, circled back and were able to stay with them for almost an hour,” Ms. Gillooly recalled this week. “Our guests were totally blown away. They were just playing around us.”

Ms. Gillooly, who owns and operates Layla Sailing out of Greenport, said that was one of several encounters she’s had with dolphins this year. “I’ve never in my life seen dolphins in these waters, so it was super surprising.”

Once a rare sight in local waters, sightings of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals are becoming a more common occurrence, according to local wildlife experts.

Maxine Montello, the rescue program director at NY Marine Rescue Center in Riverhead also said the recent sightings are not an anomaly. “As long as there’s a good, stable food source, they can take temporary residency throughout an area,” she said Tuesday.

Local marine biologist Chris Paparo, who runs the Fish Guy Photos accounts on social media, said it’s encouraging to see them return and could be an indication that water quality is improving and conservation efforts are working.

Wildlife may also be attracted to the area due to restrictions put in place within the last decade to protect a common link among marine life spanning osprey to game fish, seals and sharks: the menhaden, or bunker.

Regional fisheries now regulate bunker, which are harvested for bait, used in supplements and even cosmetics like lipstick.

“Within a few years, we started seeing huge schools of bunker,” Mr. Paparo said, describing some schools as football-field sized and spanning 40 feet deep. “When those fish come back, the things that eat them come back. Everything is a balance.”

He recently spotted a dolphin mother and her calf in the bay near the Route 105 bridge in Riverhead — which he said was odd, but not unheard of. “They’re used to living in bays and tidal creeks. In a place like Florida, they’re swimming in the back bays all the time,” Mr. Paparo said.

Emma Rosenzweig of Hampton Bays was boating in the Peconic Bay with her boyfriend, Corey, a few weeks ago when they noticed something peculiar on the boat’s fishfinder.

“All the fish were swimming away from something — we didn’t know what,” she said, until they saw a dolphin peek its nose out of the water. “We had never seen them before, so it was a really amazing experience.”

For most of the afternoon, they ditched plans to go fishing to follow the dolphins around for a bit. “We thought we were going to catch a big fish, but seeing the dolphins was a better surprise,” she said.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Gillooly and Mr. Paparo both reported seeing an increase in human recreation on the water.

Mr. Paparo hopes that these encounters lead to a heightened awareness and appreciation for the local ecosystem and plea for environmental protection. “If we all chip in, it makes a huge difference,” he said.

“People aren’t stuck behind their desks — there’s probably more people on boats than normal,” Ms. Montello said, pointing out that a rise in human encounters could lead to a rise in vessel strokes, entanglement and harassment. 

While the pod of dolphins didn’t get close enough to Ms. Gillooly’s sailboat to swim in their bow waves, the captain had to remind her guests not to jump in and swim with them. As a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, it’s illegal to feed or swim with dolphins in U.S. waters and observers must stay at least 50 yards away when viewing the animals.

“We’ve been preaching social distancing with each other, but it’s important for these animals too,” Ms. Montello said. “Sharing these beautiful waters with our local fauna is key to make sure they do keep on coming back.”

The New York Marine Rescue Center, based in Riverhead, runs a 24-hour hotline to report sightings and possible animals in distress at 631-369-9829.