NAPLES, Fla. - For the past 28 years, Captain Fred Debardelaben has taken passengers on dolphin cruises along the coast of St. Petersburg.
"You see the smiles on their faces, it makes it worthwhile," he said.
While cruising these waters with Pier Dolphin Cruises, he's also seen darkness.
"We've had them intentionally killed up here. I pulled up a dolphin a few years ago that had a .9mm slug to the head. It takes a very stupid human to do that," he said.
Authorities are offering a $20,000 reward to find who killed two dolphins on Florida's Gulf coast.
"These cases are right up there with some of the worst we have seen," said Tracy Dunn, the assistant director of NOAA's Southeast Division Office of Law Enforcement.
Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission discovered a dead dolphin off the coast of Naples on January 30. NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement said it appeared the animal was fatally struck by a bullet or sharp object.
The same week, Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge experts found a dolphin with a bullet in its left side on Pensacola Beach.
"We can’t solve these without somebody coming forward and helping us out," said Dunn.
NOAA said in May 2019, a dolphin was found with a fatal puncture wound to its head off Captiva Island. That case is still under investigation.
"Biologists believe these cases may stem from humans feeding wild dolphins," NOAA said. "Dolphins fed by people learn to associate people and boats with food, which can put them in harmful situations from boat strikes, entanglement in or ingestion of fishing gear, and acts of intentional harm like these."
"We think these dolphins were in begging posture when they were intentionally harmed. Do not reach out to that animal, do not offer it food, and do not offer to pet or touch it or lure it to the boat in any way. All of these things change the dolphin’s behaviors," said Stacey Horstman.
Horstman is the bottlenose dolphin conservation coordinator with NOAA. She said since 2002, at least 29 dolphins, including the latest two, have been found stranded in the Southeast with evidence they were shot by guns, arrows, or impaled with objects like fishing spears.
Harassing, hunting, killing or feeding wild dolphins, or attempting to do these activities is prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and is punishable by up to $100,000 in fines and up to one year in jail.
Anyone with information is asked to call NOAA's Enforcement Hotline at 800-853-1964.