A virus is crippling unusually high numbers of dolphins along the East Coast, and at least one infected dolphin has been stranded in Beaufort County, according to federal oceanic scientists.
Since July, the morbillivirus has caused dolphin strandings along the mid-Atlantic coast to rise more than nine times the historical average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Fisheries website.
The increase is classified by the agency as an "unusual mortality event" and includes the waters off New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
The National Ocean Service has investigated nine strandings in South Carolina since the state was added to the watch area in September, said Wayne McFee, National Ocean Service marine mammal stranding program scientist.
Two of those dolphins were found stranded on Beaufort County beaches recently, according to Al Segars, veterinarian for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The first, found on Hilton Head Island several weeks ago, tested positive for the virus, Segars said; test results on the second, found on Fripp Island on Tuesday, are pending.
So far, two other dolphins found in the state have tested positive for the virus and results are still pending on five others, McFee said.
The virus can't be transmitted to humans, Segars said. However, infected dolphins could be carrying other diseases, like brucella, that can be passed on, he added.
If you find a stranded dolphin, don't approach it or try to move it, Segars said. Instead, call the Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline at 1-800-922-5431 to contact the department of natural resources.
"Even though trying to save Flipper is always in the back of everyone's mind, they're on the beach for a reason," McFee said of the sick dolphins. "Pushing them back out to sea does really nothing for them."
McFee said dolphins migrating south to warm waters could carry the infection as far south as Florida. That would mirror an outbreak in 1987-88 that killed 740 animals, including 42 in South Carolina.
More than 10,000 dolphins are thought to roam the Southeast, and the numbers in South Carolina-Georgia have been estimated between 6,000 and 7,000.
The National Ocean Service works with Segars and the Hilton Head Island Beach Patrol to identify stranded dolphins and get them to the service's lab in Charleston, McFee said.
In some cases, McFee will partner with University of South Carolina-Beaufort assistant biology professor Eric Montie and his students in the college's Coastal Ecology and Conservation program to retrieve and sample dolphins stranded in the area, Montie said.
The partnership started last year, and it gives the students a chance to perform a necropsy, or animal autopsy, while helping the National Ocean Service, Montie said.
"The students really enjoy the hands on experience," Montie said.
Montie's group didn't work with the dolphins found on Hilton Head and Fripp islands, but the students are on standby to help with any other dolphins found this fall, Montie said.
"They've been great," Segars said. "It really helps us plus it gives them an opportunity to give them real life experience. We count on them."
It's difficult to predict how many dolphins will be affected by the virus in total or how many stranded dolphins will turn up in Beaufort County, Segars said.
"We really don't know," he said. "It's just kind of a wait and see ... but I don't think all of the sudden we're going to have dozens of dolphins stranded here next week."
Bo Petersen of The (Charleston) Post and Courier contributed to this report.
Reporting a stranded dolphin
If you find a stranded dolphin, dead or alive, don't approach the animal or try to move it. Instead, report its location to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline at 1-800-922-5431.
The morbillivirus infecting some dolphins isn't contagious to humans, but other illnesses that might afflict a stranded animal can be transmitted to humans.
Video: Researching environmental impacts on Lowcountry dolphins
University of South Carolina-Beaufort assistant biology professor Eric Montie has been researching dolphins in Bluffton's May River. Video by Sarah Welliver, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.