Nine things you may not know about dolphin strandings

On the occasion of dolphin awareness month, we would like to share a few facts about these charismatic cetaceans. Dolphins are some of the fastest animals in the sea, but when they strand on mud and sand they are unable to move on their own. Luckily there are people like the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team available to come to their aid in top stranding hotspots like Cape Cod, Massachusetts. IFAW’s expert biologists respond to marine mammals in trouble along 700 miles of coastline on the southeastern part of the state—armed with animal ambulances, boats, all-terrain vehicles, animal carts and stretchers, ultrasound equipment and on-site blood analysis. Look inside a dolphin rescue here.

 Common dolphins stuck on the treacherous mudflats of Wellfleet, MA.

1. Cape Cod is the hotspot for strandings. Because it is essentially a hook within a hook, Wellfleet, Massachusetts wins the prize for the most frequent dolphin strandings in the world. Usually there is a good reason why a dolphin comes to shore. For the best chance of survival, they may need medical treatment and they may need to be transported to deeper water access before being released back to the ocean. While it may be tempting to push a wayward dolphin back out to sea, the best thing to do is to stay nearby and call for help. If you’re on Cape Cod, call IFAW’s 24-hour hotline: 508-743-9548.

IFAW marine biologists provide immediate medical care to stranded dolphins.

2. Strandings are like car accidents for dolphins. IFAW's marine mammal rescue experts do everything possible to ease their stress including administering intravenous fluids to help avoid dehydration and vitamin injections to minimize muscle cramping. Although unfortunate, strandings provide an opportunity for scientists to learn about their health and behavior. IFAW rescuers and veterinarians conduct on-the-spot blood analysis, ultrasounds and hearing tests and share this data with responders around the world.

Dolphins rest on soft mats in IFAW’s animal rescue trailer before release.

3. Dolphins can survive out of the water for several hours. As mammals, dolphins can breathe on land with the nostrils on top of their head called a blowhole. IFAW places rescued dolphins on soft mats to help minimize lung compression caused by the pressure of being on land and keep them from leaning sideways so they can inflate both lungs.

Stranded dolphins are placed facing each other in a star pattern for better social interaction and communication.

4. Dolphins are social species and travel in groups called pods. Sometimes their social nature leads to healthy dolphins following sick or injured pod members to shore. During strandings IFAW’s rescue team positions dolphins facing each other in a star formation so they can see the other members of their group. This simple measure increases their ability to communicate through chirps and whistles and appears to reduce their outward signs of stress.

Dolphins strand regularly on Cape Cod beaches.

5. The cause of most strandings is unknown. Gently sloping beaches and fine sand sediment found on Cape Cod and other stranding hotspots like Australia and New Zealand may interrupt dolphins’ ability to see and communicate and may contribute to strandings. Solar storms may also play a role by short-circuiting their internal compasses. NASA and IFAW are teaming up now to study the latter hypothesis with results expected at the end of 2017.

On Cape Cod, most stranded dolphins are successfully released back to the wild.

6. IFAW’s cutting-edge science has directly saved hundreds of dolphins in our region. Survivor rates of mass stranded dolphins and whales has increased from 14 percent in 2004 to more than 70 percent in 2016, one of the highest success rates in the world. Want to see for yourself? Watch seven dolphins released back to the ocean here.

Wayward dolphins are herded out of shallow water to prevent strandings.

7. IFAW is developing the first-ever prevention program to avert strandings before they happen. As soon as the team receives word that dolphins are swimming in dangerous locations, they hit the water in boats equipped with special high frequency acoustic devices called “pingers.” Expertly navigating the boat to herd the dolphins, they safely encourage them into deeper water and out of danger.

Field science provides invaluable dolphin data.

8. When dolphins strand, the goal is to get healthy dolphins back into deep water quickly following a medical assessment. Sometimes the team discovers pregnant dolphins during ultrasound examinations. Knowing a female is carrying a calf makes the rescue mission even more critical. IFAW scientists assess the winds, tides, temperatures and travel time before deciding on the best release site for the dolphins.

Satellite tags enable scientists to track dolphins following release.

9. Satellite tags can transmit data for up to 45 days. Whenever possible, the IFAW team affixes a satellite tag to the dorsal fin of one member of the pod so they can track their progress following release. Each rescued dolphin also receives a numbered identification tag.

Help IFAW save dolphins and many more animals every day.


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Beth Allgood, Country Director, United States
Country Director, United States
Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Jimmiel Mandima at IFAW
Deputy Vice President of Conservation
Executive Vice President
Executive Vice President
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime