Flipping for dolphins

Bluffton's Lillian Long, 7, is shown here in her room April 18 with her dolphin-themed donation box. During her birthday party earlier in the month she asked friends to donate to The Dolphin Project rather than buy her gifts.
Bluffton's Lillian Long, 7, is shown here in her room April 18 with her dolphin-themed donation box. During her birthday party earlier in the month she asked friends to donate to The Dolphin Project rather than buy her gifts. Sarah Welliver/The Island Packet

A 7-year-old dolphin lover is making waves among her peers to help protect her favorite marine mammal.

Bluffton resident Lillian Long is on a mission to educate people about dolphins. You can see the excitement in her face as she spouts off facts about the playful creatures: "Did you know that dolphins come out in the morning because they think that a lot of people aren't going to be out?" But most importantly, Lillian wants people to know it's not OK to feed dolphins.

"People feed dolphins, and their fins get cut because they get near the boat," she said. "When you see a dolphin behind your boat ... slow down so it won't cut its fin."

Lillian said she's always liked dolphins because they're cute. But her interest piqued when she met Peach Hubbard, president of The Dolphin Project, at the Bluffton Art & Seafood Festival in October. Lillian stopped by Hubbard's booth to play games and color dolphin pictures.

The nonprofit, all-volunteer organization works to protect bottlenose dolphins in the area. Based out of Savannah, the group conducts field research to monitor the animals' well-being and educates the public about how to protect them from harm. As Lillian says, one of the biggest dangers to dolphins is when people feed them. Hubbard said it's against federal law to feed a dolphin, to bang on the side of your boat near a dolphin or even to get within 50 yards of one of the animals. She said people are essentially brainwashing dolphins to go up to boats for food. And that's when they get run over by boats. The females train their young to do the same, causing many dolphins to get hurt or killed by boats.

"We have the obligation to protect the dolphins," Hubbard said. "If there is something wrong with the dolphins, there is something wrong with the water they live in. ... They can alert us to hazards, dangers in the aquatic environment that we're sharing."

A few months after meeting Hubbard and learning about The Dolphin Project, it was time for Lillian to start planning her seventh birthday party. A tradition in her family is to forgo birthday gifts and ask for donations to a charity. Lillian's older brother and sister have done so on several occasions. She decided to follow in their footsteps this year.

Lillian's mother, Christy, asked what charity she wanted to help. Lillian came up with several ideas, including helping a local family in need and sending money to Japan. In the end, Lillian chose The Dolphin Project.

Lillian's party was a hit. About 20 kids showed up April 9 for the dolphin-themed party in Lillian's backyard. The party included a dolphin bounce house with a waterslide, a dolphin cookie cake, dolphin crafts and dolphin goody bags. Inside the bags were dolphin coloring books, brochures, patches, magnets and temporary tattoos courtesy of The Dolphin Project.

"I really wanted to save dolphins because I really like them," Lillian said.

Lillian and her friends donated $150 to the project. That might seem like a drop in the ocean compared to the money needed to support a group such as The Dolphin Project, but Hubbard says the money will help with the group's education outreach program, possibly for brochures or other educational material.

With Lillian's donation, she was able to adopt a local dolphin. For $25, dolphin fans can take advantage of the Adopt A Dolphin program and receive a package of information with a photo of their adopted dolphin's dorsal fin, a personalized adoption certificate, a nautical chart showing survey zones where the dolphin has been sighted and more.

"We are very grateful to Lillian and her family for participating in this project," Hubbard said.

But Lillian isn't stopping there. She hopes to run a lemonade stand to raise money for dolphins. And she thinks it would be pretty cool to be a dolphin veterinarian some day.

Her parents are proud of their daughter's dedication to dolphins. Her father, Chris, said he and his wife have tried to teach their three children the importance of helping others and have encouraged them to choose their own passions.

"As adults, sometimes we get so overwhelmed with wanting to change the whole world," Chris said. "To see Lillian take this on and just save one dolphin at a time, and the joy that it's brought her and others around her was inspiring."