Are dolphin and porpoise the same animal? Which are we seeing from out boat at Wrightsville Beach?

Spotted dolphins can be seen offshore in North Carolina waters.  (Photo by David Creech)

Spotted dolphins can be seen offshore in North Carolina waters. (Photo by David Creech)

December 2007

The aquariums get this question often, and, understandably, it can be difficult to tell these two marine mammals apart.

What we have in North Carolina waters are dolphins – bottlenose dolphins for the most part. Offshore you’re likely to see other species, particularly spotted dolphins.

The only porpoise species that occurs near the East Coast of the United States is the harbor porpoise, but it ranges between Virginia and Canada and is very unlikely to appear in North Carolina waters.

Bottlenose dolphins are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is against federal law to approach, feed, or harass them and doing so is punishable by imprisonment and /or fines. Still, their populations continue to be negatively impacted by human activities. Unintentional entanglement in commercial and recreational fishing gear, ingestion of litter, contamination of food sources, and boat injuries continue to be threats.

Bottlenose dolphins tend to be closer inshore. (Photo by Wayne Justice)

Bottlenose dolphins tend to be closer inshore. (Photo by Wayne Justice)

Scientists continue to study dolphin biology and behavior, however, more data on their reproductive rates, residency, migration patterns and habitat needs is critical to assist in their conservation. National, regional and state organizations continue to work together to gather such information.

People often make the mistake of using food to entice dolphins closer to boats. This has resulted in some dolphins becoming accustomed to approaching boats for handouts. Not only is this bad for the animal – Doritos and hot dogs are not part of its natural diet – it can endanger the animal as well as humans. Wounds by boat propellers are not uncommon, and some dolphins have been known to become aggressive and bite. It is important to remember that dolphins are wild animals and are best appreciated from a distance.

Litter at sea and cruel jokes are also a problem. Lens caps, fishing hooks, lures, disposable lighters and other such items have been found inside dead dolphin stomachs.