"It sounds like Rice Krispies!" University of South CarolinaBeaufort assistant professor Eric Montie says as he listens to the hydrophone dangling off the side of his boat in the May River.
Beneath the cackle of snapping shrimp, Montie is waiting for the sound of the dolphin that just took a dive several feet away.
Its whistle, as unique as a human voice, will be matched with the photograph of its fin that Montie's student and intern, USCB senior Michael Powell, snapped just before the animal disappeared below the surface.
The sighting and acoustic survey of the bottle-nosed dolphin population in the May River, Calibogue Sound and Calibogue Creek is part of a regular day for Montie, who was hired at the university in January with a grant designed to expand biomedical and ecological research.
The grant awards $1 million over the next five years to the university, paying for research and summer stipends for students such as Powell to work alongside their professors.
"We're trying to grow the program to meet the needs of the region, particularly with regard to the environment and ecology," said Harvey Varnet, USCB's executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. "We also want to grow our students and get them excited through hands-on work -- it takes what you learned in the classroom and crystallizes it."
AN EMPHASIS ON RESEARCH
With the university's new emphasis on coastal research, Montie, who has worked as a marine mammal field biologist at the National Ocean Service in Charleston, also is launching an acoustics program to study fish and dolphin communication in local estuaries. Montie's doctorate from the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is in biological oceanography, and he has a post-doctoral degree in bio-acoustics from the University of South Florida.
With dolphins, he listens for vocalizations and echo-location clicks that help the animals find food.
He also records noises made by red drum, black drum and spotted sea trout because they are among the dolphins' favorite meals.
The fish have a sonic muscle that beats against their swim bladder to attract mates. Figuring out where the fish spawn may give researchers a clue about dolphin life cycles, including population bursts, Montie said.
Eventually, Montie will submerge acoustic recorders at biological hot spots in the water that can also take snapshots of conditions -- including salinity and temperature -- every five minutes for six months.
For now, he and Powell cruise the estuaries about once a week in his boat, cutting the motor when they spot dolphins so they can be photographed and recorded. They've already named a few. "Stumpy," for one, is recognizable by the gouges in his dorsal fin.
"They're not very cooperative," Powell said, holding the camera to his side as a dolphin that was just next to the boat fails to resurface nearby.
The researchers run into that sort of behavior a lot.
When approached by the boat, most of the dolphins begin "chuffing" -- a kind of snort from their blowhole indicating they don't want to be watched, Montie said.
'IN OUR BACKYARD'
Montie is by now well-acquainted with dolphin behavior.
With funding from the Georgia Aquarium, Montie and Powell recently traveled to Florida's Indian River Lagoon for a health assessment of bottle-nosed dolphins there. Montie particularly wanted to test for hearing loss, which may be related to pollutants that interfere with the dolphin's thyroid development.
Dolphins are "the canary in the coal mine" when it comes to toxins in the water, Montie said -- and their hearing is a crucial part of how they navigate and feed.
But it's about more than dolphins.
"It also has a human health concept," Montie said. "We eat the same fish, so we're exposed to the same chemicals. What happens to a dolphin may eventually happen to people when it comes to pollutants."
His current and past research might also explain why three times as many dolphins have been stranded in Beaufort and Charleston counties this year than in a typical year.
The cause of the 32 strandings in South Carolina from February to May of this year won't be known for some time, according to Wayne McFee, National Ocean Service marine mammal stranding program scientist.
Most of the remains were so decomposed, testing will take years and, even then, may not yield answers.
McFee has talked to Montie about the possibility of operating a marine mammal strandings program at USCB.
Coastal Carolina University near Myrtle Beach currently runs the stranding network, and McFee thinks USCB could work in Beaufort County to supplement NOAA's limited, Charleston-based staff.
For now, Montie is consumed with growing the coastal research opportunities for USCB students.
"Because why not?" he said. "It's in our backyard."
Follow staff writer Allison Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.