IFAW-rescued dolphin spotted with pod in open water
September is usually one of our slower months for strandings and as I got out of bed on September 1st and headed out the door for a run, I thought how excited I was to be nearly done with the craziness of summer. Unfortunately, before I could get one foot out the door, the hotline rang at 6:45am. A gentleman living in Wellfleet had just seen two dolphins strand right behind his house on Chequesset Neck Rd. He reported that the animals were about 5-6 feet long and lying on their bellies, and the tide would be rising for another 3 or 4 hours.
Immediately, my stranding adrenaline began pumping and I quickly called our first responder volunteers in Wellfleet and Eastham to get out to the dolphin as quickly as possible. When our first volunteer arrived on scene, the dolphins (identified as Atlantic white sided dolphins) were already in nearly a foot of water and were about to be refloated and swim off on their own. She watched the larger animal make a few strong strokes and disappear out of sight, then watched the second animal, swim off, heading unfortunately towards Great Island, a treacherous and remote location.
We always have mixed emotions when animals free themselves and swim off in Wellfleet Harbor. We are glad that they aren’t experiencing the stress and physical pressure of being stranded anymore, but it is an extremely complex harbor to navigate, and they are rarely able to successfully find their way out to open water. As our volunteers watched the dolphin swim in slow circles near Great Island, I received another report on our hotline of a stranded dolphin on Great Island. The woman could see two dolphins, one was swimming near shore and the other (likely a third animal) was stuck on land. Our volunteers made their way over to the Great Island access point and prepared for a hike out to the dolphin - over a mile on uneven sandy terrain with heavy buckets of gear. Myself and Jane, another stranding staff member were just arriving in Wellfleet, and called the Wellfleet Harbormaster to see if they could bring us out to the dolphin by boat, and they graciously agreed to help us out.
As we arrived on scene, we found a young female Atlantic white sided dolphin with only a few scrapes on her belly from oyster shells, no other dolphins were visible. She was calm, her respirations were strong and steady. We quickly got to work making her comfortable and conducting a thorough health assessment including blood analysis on our portable blood machines. We were thrilled that the examination revealed that she was healthy! We attached an orange tag #78 to her dorsal fin and arranged for her release. We decided to tow her alongside the harbormaster’s vessel in her stretcher, as slowly as possible, out to Jeremy Point, the tip of Great Island, where she would have a clear shot into Cape Cod Bay.
This trip took an hour and a half, with four volunteers holding onto the handles of the stretcher, making sure that her blowhole was out of the water so she could easily breathe during the whole trip. When we finally reached the release location, the volunteers together dropped one side of the stretcher and gave her a little nudge to start swimming. And did she swim! She took off like a bullet and headed directly into Cape Cod Bay, the last we saw of her was the distant tip of her dorsal fin breaking the surface, heading, we hoped, to find the rest of her pod.
Now most times, that’s where the stranding story ends, we hope for the best, but rarely find out what happens after the animals are released…but not this time! The very next day, a Gloucester based whale watch boat sent photos of an Atlantic white sided dolphin with orange tag #78 on her dorsal fin – it was our girl! She was seen and photographed (above) by staff from the Whale Center of New England on a whale-watching cruise as she swam with 50-60 other Atlantic white sided dolphins and looked fantastic! Our whole team was ecstatic to hear the news. The rescue had been a tricky one, and we took a chance releasing her by herself, hoping that she would find others of her kind again. Thankfully, all the hard work and stress had paid off, she had successfully met up with a group of dolphins and looked really healthy. This is the kind of story that we stranding responders live for, one with a truly happy ending!
For more on IFAW's Marine Mammal Rescue team and other animal rescue work around the world, please visit www.ifaw.org.
The following video shows the moment when Dolphin #78 was released: