DATE: Tuesday, July 29, 1997                TAG: 9707290013



                                            LENGTH:  150 lines


NOBODY ANYWHERE knows bottlenose dolphins in these parts better than Susan Barco.

A marine biologist, Barco has logged between 3,000 and 4,000 hours off Virginia Beach's shores since the early 1990s, simply observing the water and the critters that live there.

She's not fishing, water skiing nor joy riding. Equipped only with binoculars, camera and record sheets, she chronicles dolphin behavior and abundance. She notes water temperatures, food fish nearby and location. And she takes photos of the dolphins' differing fins, which help to identify individual animals.

Though just 33, the young researcher could be called Virginia Beach's ocean mother because she plays a unique role in dolphin annals off the coast. The largest population of dolphins in the state visits the area around the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in summer and no scientist has ever been in a position to observe so closely the life of these animals, said Mark Swingle, director of the Virginia Marine Science Museum's Stranding Center.

``When you're talking dolphins,'' Swingle added, ``I don't think anybody knows more than Susan.''

Skeptics might question the importance of keeping such close tabs on dolphins, but the bottom line is that the dolphins' health is a good indicator of the ocean's health, Swingle noted.

``We eat the same fish the dolphins do,'' Swingle said. ``If they start having problems, it doesn't bode well for us.''

And Barco is in a position to sound the first alarm.

She recognizes by sight many of the big marine mammals that visit Virginia Beach in summer, animals such as Dairy Queen, which was named for the white scarring that looks like whipped cream on the tip of her fin. Barco often knows which dolphins have had babies and when.

Take Dairy Queen again. ``She had a calf in 1993,'' Barco said, ``and she has one this year, too.''

She observes the dolphins' playful habits - tail slapping and leaps. From years of experience, she can put their behavior into context with the weather, food and other surroundings. She enjoys watching the youngsters learn their parents' graceful movements.

``They are so uncoordinated, they make you laugh,'' Barco said.

Blond, tanned and physically strong, Barco is skillful at the helm of her boat. With her labrador retriever, Travis, riding the bow and a museum Stranding Center volunteer to help with record keeping, she's out on the ocean two or three days a week, often in the Cape Henry area, where dolphin moms and youngsters hang out.

For the first time this year, Barco also has been looking out for dolphins from the beach. She conducts twice-weekly shore-based observations of dolphin and boating activity in the near shore area between Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Carova, N.C.

She has permission from the refuge to drive along the beach to conduct surveys, and she is as adept at the wheel of her Nissan four-wheel-drive pickup driving down a rutted sandy beach as she is with her boat. She often takes the long ride alone, stopping often to look for dolphins offshore, to note a dead bird on the beach and to record information.

Her license plate, ``OCRAB,'' is appropriate in more ways than one. OCRAB is ``Barco'' spelled backward.

The ultimate goal of her surveys is to learn whether there is a correlation between marine mammal and other animal strandings and boating activity nearby on the water. The beach surveys, never done before in Virginia, are part of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Mid-Atlantic Beach Based Observer Program.

Barco and other surveyors along the mid-Atlantic coast locate precisely via satellite the activity they see on the beach and water with a sophisticated Global Positioning System. The data is later mapped to explore the relationship between the location of strandings, live animals and fishing activity.

``For example in March,'' Barco said, ``I found several harbor porpoises with net marks on them when there was fishing activity offshore.''

This year, Barco is paid by a grant to UNC at Wilmington from the National Marine Fisheries. She works closely with the Virginia Marine Science Museum Stranding Center, spending half her time as a marine mammal observer with the museum's dolphin photo ID project and the other half doing beach surveys.

Dolphins are Barco's livelihood and her passion. ``I can't imagine doing anything else,'' she said, ``as long as I can make enough money to survive.''

Barco's interest in the water and marine biology began at an early age. Her grandfather Arthur Barco founded Barco's Marine Railway on Laskin Road, and the 60-year-old business still is run by her uncle Terry Barco. Over the years, there was always a boat or two that family members could use for fishing, crabbing and other excursions, and little Susan Barco put a scientific twist on it all.

``Some of my fondest memories would be cleaning the fish to see what was in their stomachs,'' Barco recalled. `` `What did he eat? What did he eat?' I'd ask dad.''

She still remembers the time when her father caught a shark and it gave birth to babies on the dock. ``We kept some of the babies in a big wash tub at the marina and let them go later,'' Barco said. ``I remember that to this day.''

At age 15, she volunteered to set up a saltwater aquarium at the Oceanfront Area Library to celebrate Chesapeake Bay Month. The teen-ager went seining for local fish, filled the aquarium and maintained it for the month.

At 18 she was a volunteer with the Virginia Marine Science Museum, then still on the drawing boards. While majoring in biology at the College of William and Mary, she was never far from the sea in summer, first teaching marine science camp at Norfolk Academy and then working for the museum's exhibits department.

When Barco graduated from the William and Mary in 1986, she went to work full time as a museum education assistant and soon afterward as an exhibits technician, working behind the scenes with the animals.

``I always thought I'd like to be a fish person,'' Barco said, ``but the 1987 dolphin die-off turned me into a mammal person.''

That was the year more than 250 dolphins died off the Virginia coast and scientists converged on Virginia Beach to investigate. The museum helped out with logistics, and many staff members, Barco among them, became volunteers. As a result of the die-off, Swingle and other museum staff members realized how little was known about these animals that arrive in Virginia in late spring and stay until early fall. They initiated the stranding program in 1989 and began a small photo I.D. program.

``That sent me back to school,'' Barco said.

She was off to get her master's in biology with an emphasis on marine biology at James Madison University. While there, she took a research assistant job with marine mammal expert Ann Pabst, then a JMU assistant professor of biology.

In her two years at JMU, Barco spent about eight months getting to know Virginia Beach's warm-weather aquatic visitors, spending summers on the water conducting dolphin research for her master's thesis. The topic is ``The Ecology of Bottlenose Dolphins in Virginia Beach.''

Barco was interested primarily in factors related to the dolphins' appearance here in the spring and concluded that water temperature was the major factor.

``We see the most dolphins when the water temperature is warmest in August,'' she explained. ``They arrive in spring when the temperature is between 50 and 60 and disappear at that temperature in fall.''

After graduation, Barco returned to the Beach and worked as a research technician with the museum's Stranding Center and continued working with the photo identification project.

This past year, however, when she took on the beach surveys, she became an employee of UNC at Wilmington. Pabst is now at UNC at Wilmington also, and Barco is once again working with her mentor.

There is so much more to learn, Barco noted. Although scientists are beginning to study the effects of fishing activity on dolphins, no one has begun to understand what effect pollution levels have on the big mammals.

``It's a long-term project,'' she said, ``longer than my lifetime, but I want to contribute whatever I can to help conserve them. ILLUSTRATION: Color photo by D. Kevin Eliott

A young bottlenose dolphin...

Color photo by Steve Earley

Travis, Susan Barco's dog, watches the dolphins...


D. KEVIN ELLIOTT / The Virginian-Pilot

Marine researcher Susan Barco fills out her log book during a beach

survey at False Cape State Park in Virginia Beach.

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