If you see a dolphin off the North Carolina coast with a big bulb on his dorsal fin, you might just be looking at Onion, a bottlenose dolphin who spends his summers in the Outer Banks.
A new bill in the state legislature would make bottlenose dolphins, like Onion, the state's marine mammal. House Bill 2 passed the House unanimously and is waiting for a Senate decision.
“You know you're in a good spot when dolphins are around,” said N.C. Rep. Bobby Hanig, R-Currituck, Dare, Hyde and Pamlico, who is the bill’s primary sponsor and chairperson of the N.C. House's Marine Resources and Aqua Culture Standing Committee.
The bill cites bottlenose dolphins' abundance, athleticism, social habits and appearance for making the animal North Carolina's official marine mammal.
"... Whereas bottlenose dolphins have a short, thick beak and a curved mouth, giving the appearance that they are always smiling," the bill states.
The common bottlenose dolphin is a frequent visitor to North Carolina’s coasts. Jessica Taylor, executive director of the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, said if you see a dolphin from the beach, it’s likely a bottlenose.
Taylor said dolphins and other cetaceans, a type of marine mammal that includes whales and porpoises, are also good indicators of environmental health. Cetaceans have long lifespans and are often at the top of the food chain, so their health and behaviors can be used to study fish, contaminants and water quality.
Making sure the ecosystem is balanced is especially important in coastal areas, where many locals depend on visitors to the beach for their income.
“Basically everybody who lives here is dependent upon tourism, and tourism is dependent upon the health of the environment,” Taylor said.
Hanig said another reason legislators chose the bottlenose dolphin is because the animal is loved by everyone.
Marsha Cropp, a resident of Kill Devil Hills for six years who has been visiting the Outer Banks for 40, said she loves sitting on the beach and watching dolphins.
“They just seem so free and happy,” Cropp said.
Although bottlenose dolphins are not considered an endangered species, they are vulnerable to threats like pollution and fisheries and and are protected under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. Taylor said she hopes the bill can bring attention to bottlenose dolphins for research and conservation, even just by encouraging people to come watch them.
“When people are actually seeing the dolphins live, it’s different from just seeing a picture or reading a book,” Taylor said. “They develop that connection with them and then it makes them want to help to protect them even more.”
Only 10 states have an official marine mammal — South Carolina's is also the bottlenose dolphin. A similar bill, HB 281, is also being considered to make the loggerhead turtle North Carolina’s state saltwater reptile. Currently, North Carolina does not have a state marine mammal or saltwater reptile.
HB 2 was originally introduced in April 2019, when it passed in the House but never made it through the Senate. Hanig said he’s hoping the bill will have more success this time around — especially in the middle of the pandemic.
“We're wrapped up in so much heavy stuff every day,” Hanig said. “I think that's why, this session, it's caught so much attention. It’s just something good for us to talk about, to feel good about.”