Volunteer gets more than he was expecting in first call to help save a stranded dolphin

IFAW's Marine Mammal Rescue team rushes to help this unfortunate beached dolphin.

I got the call early Saturday afternoon: a dolphin had stranded on a beach in Osterville and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Marine Mammal Rescue robocall had gone out asking for help.

I immediately called the center and Brian Sharp answered the phone, sounding stressed and tired.

"Yes, we could use some help with the release at Scussett Beach at 2:30."

"I'll be there," I answered. "Happy to help."

It had been almost a year since I signed up and took the training to become certified to help rescue marine mammals (seals, dolphins, whales) that strand on the treacherous sandy bars and beaches around Cape Cod.

Centuries ago it was clipper ships and whaling vessels that got stuck and wrecked on these sandy bars and beaches, today it's dolphins being rescued. 

While I had helped with some small things, such as washing down equipment in the warehouse or watching a seal that had been on a beach, this was my first time helping out with a live dolphin and I suddenly wondered if I remembered enough from my training to properly assist.

Still, with my IFAW MMRR Volunteer tag around my neck and what I hoped would be appropriate clothing, I grabbed my camera and headed off to the beach.

By the time I arrived a crowd of 50 or so people had gathered around the IFAW truck where the dolphin was lying on padded blue cushions.

Kelly Donithan, in full IFAW rescue gear, was crouched beside the dolphin showing an intern how to spray water onto its skin, which was swirled with scrapes and scars where it had rubbed against shells in its attempt to stay at sea.

I had never been that close to a live dolphin before. 

Kelly and the intern reminded me of EMTs inside an ambulance -- professional and yet kind, gentle, doing everything in a quiet manner so as not to alarm the poor animal any further. The dolphin suddenly exhaled, took a breath, a gasp that sounded remarkably human. I thought of how humans and dolphins share a common ancestor.

For me, it was an easy leap to think that I was helping a distant relative.

To be honest, I didn't expect to feel much of an emotional connection. I'm not just an IFAW volunteer: I work there too, helping to maintain our website. Every day I'm putting images and content up: every day I see horrible poaching stories and read amazing tales of how this organization is helping animals all over the world. I should be inured to this kind of thing. 

But seeing my colleagues and being right there on the front lines made a big difference. They really rose to the occasion. Kelly said she'd just arrived, at midnight, from assisting rescues in Oklahoma's tornado incident. Less than twelve hours later she was helping to save a dolphin in distress.

I put on my IFAW dry suit and got ready. About 12 people, IFAW staff and miscellaneous volunteers, hoisted up the sling and carried the animal out onto an oversize stretcher, fitted with soft, oversize tires so that it would travel easily over the sand. I expected the dolphin to struggle or protest, but it lay still. As we pushed it away from the truck and over the sand towards the release site, Brian asked if anyone had seen it breathe. Kelly and C.T. shook their heads.

I realized how touch and go these rescues are. While everything to my eyes seemed stable and like it was going well, I realized maybe we'd struggle to take the creature all the way to the water just to see it die. Pushing the cart, I could see how deeply some of the scars were. Some were even bleeding. I wondered how much a surface cut on its skin would hurt.

Poor thing.

Finally, surrounded by a crowd of seventy people and camera crews from several different news organizations, we were ready to release. Some swell was making waves that on any other day would have been lovely, "fun," beach waves: now they were a serious obstacle to the release. After going to the left, we reversed direction and headed for a spot where the waves were less strong. 

Still no breath.

And on the count of three, we again lifted the dolphin and walked it into the water. Almost as soon as we had entered, the waves picked up and we were hit by three, four, five waves before we got far enough out to release. Finally, with a strained "Whooosh!" the dolphin took a gasping breath and Brian and C.T. nodded. It was an important sign. 

At the signal, we peeled the sling away and left the dolphin cradled gently in their arms. We backed towards the beach, watching for any sign of movement from the animal. Finally, after long minutes of uncertainty, it began to thrust its tail. Then, listing heavily to the side, it left its helpers and, tail thrust by tail thrust, headed off into the deeper waters of Cape Cod Bay.

Although we weren't supposed to cheer, everyone did. I felt a surge of emotion and just for a moment, swallowed back tears. I wished it well, hoped the satellite tag we'd put on it would indicate in a few days that it had found a new pod of dolphins and was out of harm's way.

I didn't take my eyes off it until its tail splashes were indistinguishable from the far off chop of the waves.

Back at the beach, someone asked me what kind of dolphin it was.

"It's a..." I started, then paused. I didn't know. It wasn't quite like any of the ones I'd seen before. And instead of guessing, I just told him to check with Brian or C.T.  "They'll know for sure. I don't want to say if I'm not sure."

Later I looked it up and was glad I hadn't guessed: It was a Risso's dolphin. Unusual for Cape Cod. A unique shaped head and beautiful gray skin that is easily scarred. 

My first rescue.  

On Monday, June 17th I checked in with the MMRR team and learned that about an hour and a half later it re-stranded in Sagamore. Before the IFAW crew could arrive, do-gooders had pushed it back into the sea. The next day it was found, dead, on another beach. A necropsy revealed that it was much older than it had seemed and had a serious heart problem. Depressing to know the outcome, but no amount of rescue can prevent the natural cycle of life and death from happening, and perhaps it was just this animal's time.


Visit our team page for more information about our work to save marine mammals in distress.

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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
Veterinarian, DVM, PhD
Veterinarian, DVM, PhD
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
Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy