4,000 and counting: IFAW’s stranding team reaches milestone

Three of the dolphins rescued in Wellfleet were cleared for release.

The IFAW Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team (originally the Cape Cod Stranding Network) has provided marine mammal stranding response to Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts since December 1998. Recently the team passed 4,000 stranded animal responses in its record books. Here is a description of a response around that milestone number from assistant stranding coordinator Jane Hoppe. --BS

Recently, IFAW  received a report of two live dolphins swimming just west of the Lieutenant Island Bridge in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.  IFAW dispatched a trained volunteer to confirm the report, and while staff was en route to the reported location, our volunteer confirmed the presence of four dolphins.

Fortunately for the animals, the tide was incoming for another three-and-a-half hours, allowing them more water to swim in, which would decrease the likelihood of them stranding.

When IFAW arrived, we observed four common dolphins swimming; there were two adults and two calves, or subadults. The animals were split into two groups, with one adult and one subadult per group. 

Lieutenant Island is an area that floods over the road and marshes at high tide, which could allow the animals to swim into very difficult locations for them to navigate and to be rescued from. Staff decided to attempt to herd the four dolphins out of the channels and into deeper water with a kayak and an inflatable zodiac. It was determined that there was only one safe way for the animals to go, which would lead them out into deeper waters.

The herding effort, however, proved difficult as the animals were divided into two groups, and they were swimming in the wrong direction—toward land and deeper into the channels.

Ultimately, the decision was made to abort the herding effort, as the animals were not responding.  One adult animal made its way into shallow water, where staff placed it on a stretcher and relocated it on a custom-made dolphin cart to our live animal trailer. 

Shortly thereafter, two other dolphins (an adult and subadult) swam to the end of a channel near the road, where they, too, were stretchered and supported in the water until enough personnel were available to bring them to the trailer. Finally, the fourth animal, another subadult, stranded in the shallows where it was collected and brought to the trailer.

Prior to being placed into the trailer, each animal was weighed using postal scales. These accurate weights allow us to dose the animals properly, if necessary, with medications and vitamins essential to the response and post-release survival.

Staff is not able to confirm at strandings that animals are related, or are mom-calf pairs; however, we knew that this was a possibility for this event. So we kept each pair together for social reasons during the health assessments.

Each animal received a thorough health assessment, which included on-site blood work and analysis, body condition determinations, vital signs monitoring, external examination, and behavioral assessment.  Following hours of triage and health assessments, it was decided that three of the animals, two adults and one subadult, were healthy enough for release back into the wild. 

The fourth animal, one of the subadults, was found to have sustained a prior wound so deep on its tail stock that it was deemed unreleasable.  After consult with our veterinarian, the decision was made to humanely euthanize the animal to cease its suffering. 

The remaining three animals were two adult females (one of which may have been pregnant), each approximately seven feet long and 240 pounds, and one male calf, or subadult, that was just under five feet long and weighed 73 pounds.

These animals were transported over land in our enclosed dolphin transport trailer and brought to Scusset Beach in Sandwich, chosen based on wind direction and other environmental conditions, as well as for the fact that it provided access to deep waters to reduce the likelihood that the animals would restrand.

Prior to release, each animal was affixed with a plastic cattle-ear tag on its dorsal fin for identification purposes, should it be resighted. 

Additionally, one adult (associated with the remaining calf/subadult) was affixed with a satellite tag on its dorsal fin for post-release monitoring purposes.  The temporary satellite tag data from this animal transmitted for 30 days, which when analyzed with the location information shows us that the dolphin has survived and returned to typical habitats.

While transmitting, the animal was observed inhabiting waters approximately 50 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.The IFAW staff is hopeful that the released animals continue to do well, and will use this stranding as a means to improve response to our next 4,000 animals.

--JH

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