The local chapter of the National Marine Mammal Foundation conducts research of dolphins in the Charleston area. | Research activities conducted under NMFS Permit No. 18786/Courtesy National Marine Mammal Foundation

You may not know it, but Charleston is one of the most important places for dolphin research in the world, according to experts at the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF). 

From examining the unique strand feeding method used by local dolphins to find mullet to studying their head-standing through the pluff mud to shovel for crabs, local research into bottlenose dolphins is vital to understanding dolphins globally.

The NMMF, a new partner in this weekend’s Southeastern Wildlife Expo (SEWE), is indispensable for keeping dolphins healthy, said NMMF officials. More importantly, the organization has made discoveries here that have benefited marine mammal populations worldwide. 

Quigley | Provided

“Charleston is an important place for dolphin research,” says NMMF Field Manager Brian Quigley. “The dolphins here have served as an important reference population to compare to populations in other parts of the country. 

“Dolphins are sentinel species, which means they can be indicators of ecosystem health. Therefore, continued research of our local population is essential to monitor long-term trends and detect potential threats to the environment.” 

Charleston is NMMF’s
East Coast home

Like NMMF, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chose Charleston as a location for one of its 10 laboratories due to the local cetacean population.

Another factor in Charleston’s ties to marine mammal conservation is the legacy of the late U.S. Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, who represented the Palmetto State for decades.

“Senator Hollings was instrumental in the [1972] Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Oceans and Human Health Act,” Quigley said. “And both of those are instruments that pretty much drive a lot of research that’s done for marine mammals.” 

These acts, he added, generated much of the work of NOAA and NMMF to take place. Both organizations work primarily at a marine lab on James Island named in Hollings’ honor. 

Since the NMMF opened its Charleston location in 2018, it has conducted regular field projects to monitor the health, behavior and population of local dolphins. 

Dolphins are a sentinel species whose health and population can indicate overall ecosystem health. | “Research activities conducted under NMFS Permit No. 18786/Courtesy National Marine Mammal Foundation”

“On a typical field day around here, we might have to go get a boat from Fort Johnson, and we’ll survey around Charleston Harbor and up some of the rivers maybe out to the coast, and then do everything in reverse,” Quigley said. “At the end of the day, we write up a summary for the day and start to process the data. So 90% of the work is outside of the field effort.” 

Quigley added that the NMMF’s work is also done around the country and even overseas. The Charleston location employs three of the foundation’s team of more than 150 biologists, scientists, conservationists, veterinarians and community engagement specialists. “Many of us travel to wherever we are needed to protect marine mammals, and provide technical, medical, and scientific expertise,” Quigley said.

NMMF Executive Operations Officer Kristina Martz, who works out of the organization’s San Diego headquarters, added, “One of our teammates just came back from rescues with dolphins in Pakistan. We have people traveling all of the time to marine mammal conferences and scientific conferences. So it’s a revolving door, but it’s always great.”

The NMMF team

As the NMMF’s Charleston station field manager and field biologist, Quigley works in conservation medicine for the foundation. He runs the show in Charleston, while Martz coordinates global efforts from their headquarters in San Diego. Both will be in Charleston during SEWE to explain the NMMF’s dolphin research to thousands of expo visitors.

“The United States Navy’s marine mammal program offered me a job right upon graduation from school,” Martz said. “And so I started there, right out of college in a position providing care to the U.S. Navy’s dolphins and sea lions — and I did that for 10 years. 

“And during that time, the National Marine Mammal Foundation was established. So I transitioned over to the foundation, still providing support to the Navy’s marine mammal program and working with the animals. And then I transitioned more in the business administration and organizational advancement space.” 

Quigley has worked at NMMF for six years.

 “I grew up in Philadelphia,” he said. “I always had an interest in wildlife and marine mammals. So I went to school, moved to South Carolina, went to Coastal Carolina University of Myrtle Beach, got a bachelor’s degree in marine science. I was lucky enough to get an internship in Charleston with the NOAA’s National Ocean Service. And that’s where I met the guys that still work here today.”

The NMMF’s Charleston administrative location is a nondescript office on Johns Island, but the tools inside hold the key to modern dolphin research and rescue. While the office is adorned with nautical maps of Charleston and posters chronicling NMMF discoveries, the heart of the office is a supply room with incredible technology — an arrow used to gather samples of dolphin blubber, a drone used for tracking and tags of all sorts. All are used to uncover the mysteries of these beautiful creatures. 

“In San Diego, the headquarters sounds really exciting,” Martz said. “But in reality, we have a tiny office, it’s actually smaller than the one that you’re in right now. The Charleston field station feels huge.” 

Quigley said the team at the Charleston field office had a long history in the area already — and serious experience. 

“Our biologists had been studying the local [dolphin] population here since the mid 1990s as part of the NOAA lab at Fort Johnson, Hollings Marine Laboratory.”


The NMMF is becoming more involved in Charleston with its participation in the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. Last summer, Quigley and Martz met SEWE President and CEO John Powell and were invited to collaborate this year. 

Quigley recently provided a sneak peek into the exhibit.

The National Marine Mammal Foundation hosts an interactive Dolphin Doctor workshop during SEWE with educational activities for all ages. | “Research activities conducted under NMFS Permit No. 18786/Courtesy National Marine Mammal Foundation”

“Programs at SEWE will give you a glimpse of the work we do to conduct dolphin population assessments and rescue individual animals in need,” he said. “Our Dolphin Doctor program, which will happen twice per day at Marion Square, will engage the audience in a typical rescue effort. It’ll kind of walk you from the first step of us getting a call saying, ‘Hey, there’s a dolphin entangled.’ 

“Then over the course of that rescue, we’ll explain to the audience all the different tools that we use to assess that animal’s health. So things like blood sampling, ultrasound evaluations, X-rays. There’s a whole list of tools that we’re excited to share with everybody and describe to the audience.”

Quigley said the NMMF also would present short films and offer each night of SEWE at Charleston Gaillard Center “where you can meet our team and learn more about our conservation efforts here and around the world.

“Four films [will] highlight the work that we do. It’ll talk more specifically about the stuff we do locally and the rescue efforts. And then it’s going to talk about what we do on a global scale.”

NMMF’s role around
the world

The NMMF is currently involved in 30 major projects with more than 50 collaborators, such as the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and dozens of nonprofits.

The National Marine Mammal Foundation chose Charleston as its second location because of research previously conducted at the Hollings Marine Laboratory. | “Research activities conducted under NMFS Permit No. 18786/Courtesy National Marine Mammal Foundation”

These partnerships often result in remarkable — and sometimes troubling — new science. One recent discovery came from an investigation into the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The NMMF’s team, which researched dolphins in an area with heavy oil exposure from the spill, found dolphins with an unprecedented array of chronic health issues. These dolphins suffered from “lung disease, poor body condition, impaired stress response and low reproductive success that have persisted for years since the spill,” Quigley said. But the research led to development of new techniques to help dolphin populations and improve their health and well-being.

Discoveries help lawmakers, too.

 “We’re really trusted by other international organizations and institutions to be that neutral, unbiased entity,” Martz said. “There’s the factor, especially with conservation biology, and assessing the impacts of noise and human related activities on marine mammals. Our scientists share that with policymakers so we don’t create the policy, but we provide the scientific information for those decision makers to do exactly that.”

The NMMF offers exhibits during SEWE in Marion Square. Learn more at: 

Lucy Dixon is a senior at James Island Charter High School where she is editor of the school’s newspaper.

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SEWE event picks

The 2023 Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE) offers dozens of events Feb. 16-19 in various downtown locations.

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