Helping from a distance: What to do if you encounter a stranded dolphin

Think of a stranding as an event as jarring and stressful as a car accident.

It can be startling and upsetting to see a seal or dolphin in distress.

It is only natural to want to help.

However, well-intentioned people can without knowing put themselves in great danger and actually make the situation worse for stranded animals if they decide to intervene.

This past weekend our Marine Mammal Rescue and Research Team received a report of a stranded dolphin within our response area. The dolphin had stranded and a beachgoer had pushed it back out several times until they eventually lost sight of the dolphin. Immediately upon receiving the report, our team headed to the location, so we could be on scene if it re-stranded.  After an extensive search, we were unable to locate the dolphin. 

It seems logical that if a dolphin is on the beach or in shallow water, it doesn’t belong there and should be pushed back out to deeper water.  Unfortunately it isn’t that simple, and while this particular “rescue” story was presented as a happy ending for this dolphin, it may not have been.

After years of responding to hundreds of stranded dolphins, we know that each animal should be evaluated to determine whether or not it is a good candidate for release. Those that are deemed to have a chance at survival require supportive care and treatment, even those animals that were relatively healthy prior to stranding. 

Utilizing specialized stretchers, padding and our dolphin rescue trailer, our experienced team provides continuous for the dolphin.

Think of a stranding as an event as jarring and stressful as a car accident. Added to that, the “victim” of the “car crash” may be sick as well. Re-floating a dolphin without evaluating it and providing supportive treatment is similar to sending that sick, injured car crash victim on their way to walk home alone. 

The more common stranding sites on Cape Cod have convoluted waterways and extreme tidal fluctuations, where dolphins strand due to what we believe are navigational errors.  These animal, if handled and treated properly, have been shown by our research to have a great chance of survival.  However, those that strand on the much easier to navigate southern coast of Massachusetts, are more likely to have stranded due to injury or illness.

Examinations and necropsies of dolphins that strand on South Coast beaches almost always show some type of disease.  In any case, our team would almost never find a circumstance in which the appropriate action would be to push a dolphin back out without an evaluation, treatment, or relocation; the cause of a strand is important to determine.

Over the years our team has had great success in relocating and releasing dolphins and we have developed a protocol to maximize the chance of survival after release. Utilizing specialized stretchers, padding and our dolphin rescue trailer, our experienced team provides continuous care to minimize the effects of physiological stress on the dolphin. Our trailer, equipped with blood analysis machines, ultrasound, and a heart rate monitor serves as a mini-emergency room where we evaluate the animal and then treat it accordingly. Fluid and medical therapies are given as prescribed by our veterinarian, and dolphins are affixed with identification tags and often satellite tags so that we can monitor their progress after release. 

Please don’t push dolphins back into the water.

Here’s what you can do:

  1.  Call the appropriate stranding response agency for your area. View list here. IFAW is the designated agency for Cape Cod and the South Coast of Massachusetts. The number is (508) 743-9548
  2. Give detailed location information, directions, and a description of the animal and its behavior. Take photos or video if you can (these are always helpful)
  3. Maintain a safe distance – at least 150 feet is recommended under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This prevents the animal from being stressed by your presence and can keep you from getting injured by a thrashing dolphin.
  4. If safe to do so, keep gulls, dogs and other animals away from the dolphin until trained responders can arrive.


IFAW works under a stranding agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which permits us to rescue legally protected marine mammals including dolphins, whales, seals and porpoises.  

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Senior Program Advisor
Senior Program Advisor
Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Veterinarian
Gail A'Brunzo, Manager, Wildlife Rescue
Manager, Wildlife Rescue
Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Loïs Lelanchon, Animal Rescue Program Officer
Animal Rescue Program Officer
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy