New Year’s Day breaks dolphin rescue record

New Year's Risso's Dolphins Rescue

New Year’s has started off with a bang: the largest stranding of Risso’s dolphins in the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s history.

After a Wellfleet fisherman reported three dolphins swimming in shallow water near the boat ramp in the harbor, local volunteers immediately went out to assess the situation and they not only confirmed the original report, but identified many more.

We knew right away that they were Risso’s dolphins from pictures we were sent because of their extra tall dorsal fin. Dolphins strand on Cape Cod regularly, although we usually see the smaller species of Common or Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

We loaded up our stranding equipment including three rescue trailers, lots of dolphin stretchers and three marine mammal carts that can wheel through the sand and mud. By 11 am we were on the water in our small inflatable Zodiac boat using acoustic deterrents called pingers to herd the two groups of dolphins totaling ten individuals out of the harbor before the tide dropped. At approximately 1pm, we added a second IFAW boat to assist with our efforts. Although we made some progress moving a group of ten dolphins including four calves, out into deeper water, the dolphins ultimately headed to shore and stranded on nearby mudflats in an area called Chipman’s Cove.

It took every Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team staff member, volunteer, and local helpers at the scene to rescue the ten stranded dolphins.

One by one, the animals—some weighing as much as 1,100 pounds—were loaded up on specialized stretchers, placed on marine mammal carts and wheeled through thick mud and sand about 400 feet to one of the three waiting IFAW rescue trailers with the help of 15-20 people each. Once there, they received full health assessments from our staff and veterinarians and were fitted with identification tags.

The dolphins were then driven to Corn Hill Beach in Truro where the release back out to open water began in the dark at 6:30 pm.

This part of the rescue mission was an even bigger challenge given that the shoreline was about a football field away from the parking lot and then we needed to carry the dolphins a half mile out into the water to reach swimmable depths. I don’t know exactly how cold it was, but we were fighting the wind and using our bodies’ reserves to get the job done. All ten Risso’s dolphins made it back out to the ocean by 9:30 pm and we sent them off feeling hopeful that they would swim offshore where they belong. We headed to the warehouse to clean up our equipment and grabbed a bite to eat before departing at 1am.

READ: Satellite tags show Risso’s dolphin’s far-ranging movements since release

Unfortunately the next morning, we found three of the rescued dolphins stranded again: one calf, its mom and the largest dolphin from yesterday’s group. This time they landed at Ryder’s Beach in Truro. We pulled the team back together and headed east to rescue them once again. The youngster was quite energetic, but the adults were relatively lethargic. We faced the calf towards its mom and could hear them communicating through clicks and squeaks; she perked up, too.

All three dolphins showed signs of stress in their second health assessments, but were well enough to be given another chance at survival. We drove them to Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown and released them into the open water of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

The dolphins were moved one by one to the water’s edge and carried back out to sea using pure brawn and specialized equipment. Watch the video below to see what it takes to lift these heavy animals.

We are cautiously optimistic that this group will stay offshore, recover from the events of the past two days, and hopefully rejoin the rest of their pod. We fitted one of the adults with a satellite tag and have used this to track its movements since the release below.

Last week we had three days of Common dolphin strandings involving five live animals. We were able to rescue all five live dolphins that came to our shores. Unfortunately, there were also ten additional Common dolphins that stranded in the same timeframe and were no longer alive when they were found.  

These dolphin rescues would not have been possible without assistance from many folks including our dedicated volunteers, staff, local residents (some even brought us hot chocolate), Americorps, our partners from the Greater Atlantic Region stranding network, the Wellfleet Police Department and the Truro police and fire departments. Thank you for all of your hard work and Happy New Year!


IFAW’s stranding response is conducted under the authorization of a Stranding Agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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