ifaw's rescue operation to save a mother-calf dolphin pair found swimming in an inlet
July 30, 2020
On Sunday, July 12th, our Marine Mammal Rescue & Research team received a report of two dolphins swimming in Mill Pond, Orleans, MA. We deployed a team to assess the animals, conditions, and location. The dolphins were identified as short-beaked common dolphins, an offshore species common to the waters off Cape Cod. They were found to be a mother-calf pair, actively swimming, in moderate body condition, with no significant injuries or lesions. The team decided it was in the dolphins’ best interest to see if they could navigate back to open ocean on their own. Our team spent the next several days on land and water monitoring the pair’s condition and behavior for signs of illness or stress. As with every rescue, our priority is to get healthy animals in need of rescue safely back to the wild whenever possible.
These dolphins were located in an inlet pond more than 3 miles up a convoluted estuary from a single narrow opening back to the ocean. This area and distance made herding or guiding the dolphins back to sea a very difficult proposition, if not impossible. Considered "out of habitat" for this species, IFAW was concerned that in this pond, the animals would not be able to find appropriate or sufficient food and would be exposed to higher than normal water temperatures and lower salinity levels.
After a few days in the pond with no indication that these off-shore dolphins would be able to find their way back out, our team used a variety of methods to herd the animals. Unfortunately the dolphins were still very active and did not respond to these efforts. The best, and perhaps only, option for these dolphins was to collect them, remove them from the pond, and transport them across land to a deep water release location. To accomplish this, our team made attempts to herd the animals to shore. Our team is experienced and authorized to conduct these operations and worked closely with NOAA in getting permission for this and planning our operations.
The pair continued to evade our vessels, and our discussion to escalate rescue efforts began when we noted their conditions deteriorating. Unfortunately, the dolphins also began to draw a lot of attention from the public including swimmers and people on boats and kayaks, which added their stress. We knew we had to make something happen quickly.
The following morning, July 28th, the team was notified the mother had stranded on shore, but the calf was still swimming. Our team responded to rescue the mother and continue efforts to capture the calf. Once out of the water, it was evident the mother was not doing well. She was very thin, malnourished, and dehydrated. The team provided emergency care and treatments to the mother under the guidance of our staff wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Sarah Sharp.
We stationed a team on-site to provide 24/7 care to the mother overnight with hopes that the calf might come close enough to shore to be safely collected. Tragically, despite our best efforts, the mother’s condition continued to decline and she died during the night. We then shifted our efforts, with urgency, to capturing the calf. We had one final tool to try, which was not without risks, but it was our only hope to rescue the calf.
Using similar vessel operational procedures and a type of seine net designed for capturing swimming entangled seals, we set out on the water once again. Capturing a dolphin with a seine net involves a great deal of expertise and, even still, there is risk that the dolphin can break a flipper or even drown during the process.
Through expert maneuvering and years of experience, the team was able to safely capture the calf without injury to the dolphin or people. Our veterinarian closely examined the calf and it was determined to be both healthy and nutritionally independent of the mother. This was tremendous news because it meant that his release would be possible.
The young male dolphin was transported to Herring Cove, in Provincetown, MA and released from the beach into the Atlantic Ocean. Our team attached a small temporary satellite tag to track the dolphin’s survival following release and Dr. Sharp monitored the calf via boat as it swam out to open, deep water.
Our goal and priority with every rescue to make the best decision possible for each animal. Our actions are driven by providing the best possible medical care and welfare for each animal. This means not inducing unneeded stress or injuries that could be life-threatening.
This rescue is bittersweet for the team. While the mother did not survive, the calf became the first free-swimming dolphin that we were able to rescue and release using these techniques. We continue to learn from each rescue experience and thank all our dedicated staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly with us to ensure the calf was given a chance at life in the wild again. We also thank the local community around Mill Pond for being so supportive of our team’s efforts. Finally, we especially would like to thank the Orleans and Provincetown Harbor Masters who provided a great deal of support during this event.