WATCH + READ: recent dolphin strandings bring daunting memories of winter
I had the privilege of spending a week working with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Project in Sarasota, Florida last week. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn from other researchers and to further refine our health assessment and satellite tagging. It was rewarding and a bit exhausting. I arrived home a bit late Saturday night, having just a couple of hours to spend with my family before crashing. My plan for Sunday was to spend a wonderful and relaxing day at home.
Alas, the dolphins had something else in mind. Instead, I spent the day with the rest of the International Fund for Animal Welfare Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team (my other family!) responding to 17 common dolphins that stranded in Wellfleet – a global mass stranding hot spot.
The event did not come as a total surprise, as we had investigated reports of 20-40 dolphins off Sandy Neck beach on Saturday evening, which could have been the dolphins spotted along Cape Cod Canal that day.
All 17 dolphins stranded in the early morning in Wellfleet, MA. Here’s a video that Brian took in the water with them after tagging the animals:
One dolphin sadly died as it stranded, but the remaining 16 were successfully re-floated and herded out of the Herring River. Our goal with mass stranding prevention is to herd groups of dolphins using small boats and pingers (acoustic deterrents that emit a high frequency pinging noise that annoys, but does not harm the dolphins). We use the vessels much as cowboys would herd cattle- swinging the boats back and forth between the dolphin and the shore. We deploy the pingers to further encourage them. This past winter we had a 92% success rate in these efforts, but we were not as fortunate on Sunday. The group of 16 split into two groups as we herded. Despite our best efforts, 9 animals headed deep into a creek, ending up in a small area called Loagy bay. We attempted to get them back out into the harbor, but had to abandon the efforts when the animals became too stressed. All 9 then stranded. Fortunately, our rescue team and volunteers were already in place.
We rescued the animals and brought them to our transport trailers for full health assessments. Due to the heat and exposure to the sun, as well as the fact that these animals had likely stranded twice already (once Saturday night), they were not in the best condition. Two animals were humanely euthanized to end their suffering when determined they were not releasable. The remaining 7 were transported and released at a beach on the opposite side of Cape Cod to give them a better chance of returning to open water and thus a better chance of survival. One animal was tagged with a satellite transmitter to help us gather data about how well they survive after release and where they go. That animal (and hopefully many or all of the other 6 we released), is now in the Great South Channel – prime dolphin habitat!
While we were in the midst of this response, we also received a report of 7 more animals stranded in Brewster- all with tags- they were the remaining animals that were herded out of Wellfleet in the morning. I cannot describe the disappointment and frustration we all felt. We could not spare any personnel or resources to respond in Brewster. Our wonderful volunteers and other IFAW staff went to the aid of the dolphins- working to keep gulls away and to maintain safety until the sun set and the tide came in. While one of these animals died, the remaining 6 were last seen resting on a sand bar as the tide came in. All volunteers had to retreat to the beach because it was too dark and unsafe to remain on the flats.
Although I expected that we would receive many calls on Monday about animals stranded in the Brewster area, we received NONE! Hopefully the last six animals were able to survive their ordeal, refloat and swim to deeper waters. Our staff and volunteers remain at the ready, as we think we may indeed see some of these animals again. Our fingers are crossed that they make it safely out of Cape Cod Bay.