Nightly News   |  August 15, 2011

Dolphins examined to assess gulf recovery

A gleaming Barataria Bay in Louisiana is a living laboratory for scientists determining the impact of the BP oil spill on dolphins and the Gulf of Mexico. NBC’s Anne Thompson reports.

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BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Finally tonight, it's been over a year since the awful slow-motion sadness we all watched on that live underwater camera, the BP oil spill . There were a lot of promises about cleaning up that water, making life better for the marine life there, but what has the progress been like? The creatures that will help answer that question are the dolphins in the gulf. We went back to check on them in the waters of Barataria Bay in Louisiana . Our report tonight from our chief environmental affairs correspondent, Anne Thompson .

ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Today a gleaming Barataria Bay is a living laboratory for scientists determining the impact of the BP oil spill on dolphins and the gulf.

Unidentified Man: This is one of the places which was heavily oiled and where there is still some residual oil .

THOMPSON: More than 400 dolphins have died since the spill, including one found in Barataria this June with BP Oil . But today the focus is on those that survived. Scientists corral the dolphin with a net, lifting it onto the research vessel Megamouth , a floating exam room. The dolphin is weighed and measured.

Offscreen Voice: One-two-seven-one.

THOMPSON: Electrodes monitor heart and lung function. Under a hood, one scientist checks internal organs with ultrasound while others take blood and blubber samples, looking for signs of trouble brought on by oil.

Dr. TERI ROWLES (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): Respiratory problems, neurologic problems, and some skin lesions in some of those animals.

THOMPSON: But the answers won't be known for months.

Dr. LORI SCHWACKE (Principal Investigator): It's just like when you go to the doctor. The doctor doesn't generally look at you and say, 'Oh, yeah, you're healthy,' or, 'You're not healthy.' It takes some diagnostics to tell anything.

THOMPSON: Working quickly, they try not to stress the dolphin. At the first sign of trouble, it's put back in the water. This dolphin is pregnant and so the examination has to take place in the water. One of the things scientists are looking for is an answer as to why so many baby dolphins have died since the oil spill , and they're hoping this dolphin may help them find the answer. Branded and tagged with satellite and radio tracking devices, the dolphins return to the wild, now partners in the quest to restore the gulf. Anne Thompson , NBC News, Barataria Bay , Louisiana.