Inside a Rescue

When an animal or group of animals comes ashore sick, injured or dangerously out of habitat, IFAW launches into action.

Gathering information

Each event is unique and requires a response tailored to the circumstances of that stranding in order to ensure the best outcome. The IFAW Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team maintains readiness to respond to all types of dolphin, whale, porpoise, and seal strandings.

When we receive a call on our Emergency Hotline, we immediately dispatch the nearest volunteer responder to assess the situation and relay key details about the stranding back to the staff. This rapid response allows us to conduct the best response possible.

Volunteer Responders tell us:

  1. what species of animal has stranded,
  2. how many animals there are,
  3. the size of the animals, and
  4. their general condition.

With this information we can be sure to respond with the right gear. Our decisions include:

  1. Do we need our transport trailer?
  2. Do we need mud mats to navigate the treacherous mud in Wellfleet?
  3. How many volunteers should be dispatched to assist with the response?

Cetacean response

Once on scene, the IFAW response team conducts a health assessment using behavioral observations, physical examination, blood analysis, and other diagnostic veterinary techniques to evaluate the animal’s health. Since there are no local rehabilitation facilities for cetaceans, often there are few options for these stranded animals. Supportive care is provided to all animals to make them as comfortable as possible and increase their chances for survival.

Since these strandings often take place on the shores of Cape Cod Bay, where large tidal fluctuations and convoluted estuaries contribute to the stranding event, releasing animals directly from the stranding site often leads to re-stranding. As a result, dolphins, whales and porpoises that are deemed healthy are transported across land to key locations on the Cape for release into open water. For more on whale and dolphin strandings, go to our FAQs.

Seal response

When a seal is reported on shore ill or injured (seals normally rest on shore, so not all seals you encounter on the beach are stranded), volunteers and staff perform a visual health assessment, noting the physical condition and behavior of the animal to determine if it is in need of help. If so, staff and volunteers will carefully collect the animal in a large plastic kennel and transport it to our holding facility for a full evaluation. Seals in need of medical care are stabilized, and then transported to a rehabilitation facility. For more on seal strandings, go to our FAQs.


The ultimate goal in responding to live stranded marine mammals is to return as many healthy animals as possible back to the ocean—whether it be within hours or quickly after a successful rehabilitation.

Not all animals can be saved. In some cases, the most humane response is to euthanize the animal. Understanding that the course of nature is often beyond our control, the IFAW team of staff and volunteers do everything they can to minimize an animal’s suffering and provide a compassionate and respectful death.

We investigate both live and dead stranded marine mammals. Gathering data from animals that wash ashore dead can provide important insights into the health of the population and what diseases or human activities may be affecting them.

As a leader in the rescue and research of stranded marine mammals, IFAW is dedicated to understanding and learning from each unique stranding event. Our goal is to apply what we learn to improve our response protocols and thus increase the survival rate of stranded animals