It's been a while since I've blogged, apparently I was saving myself for a big event! Yesterday we responded to a mass dolphin stranding on Cape Cod. A total of 16 dolphins were stranded at two different locations in Wellfleet, on the Cape. Our Rescue partners at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) contacted us and asked for assistance. They dispatched us to Lieutentant Island, where there were six dolphins stranded on the mud flats. The mud was soft and dangerous. It proved to be a safety issue for the rescuers and made movement very difficult. It also hampered the rapid collection and movement of these very large animals.
Below is a photo taken just as we arrived at the dolphins. Five dolphins (four alive and one dead) were located together and one smaller dolphin was left on the mud about 40 yards away.
In the Photo Below Kerry McNally listens to the heartbeat of the dolphin that was away from the rest of the group. I left Kerry in charge of performing a health assessment on this animal so I could determine the best course of action for the overall situation.
Below was our first attempt at moving one of the dolphins. It was dangerous as the rescuers were getting stuck in the mud and falling as were were moving the animal. We put dolphin stretchers over the mud to help give the rescuers purchase in the mud, but we did not have enough stretchers or rescuers. I called IFAW and told them the situation and asked for more help. They were just finishing up at the other location and sent a team and more stretchers to help.
In the photo below, you can see three live dolphins upright in the mud waiting quietly while we moved the first one to solid ground. The dolphin in the background was dead when we arrived to the beach. Normally I would have assigned a team to move the dead dolphin out of sight of the live animals, however the noise and commotion we would have caused moving it in this mud would have put further stress on the live animals and I could not take that chance. In stranded dolphins, stress is everything. Simply put, prolonged stress will eventually lead to system failure and death. In the photo on the right you can see that the dead dolphin was not right next to the live animals so I decided it was not worth the risk to move it.
The small animal that was found farther away from the others was alert and active. Due to the difficulty in moving in this mud, I decided to leave this animal where it was and move it only once when more help arrived with more equipment to aid in crossing the mud. In the photo, the animal is on the mud several feet in front of the two volunteers. The animal was in a good position so I asked the volunteers to monitor it from a few feet away. Wild dolphins do not respond well to human touch, it causes something called a startle reflex and increases stress. Unless the animal needs direct support, I usually ask my team to monitor and only touch when necessary.
Once more help arrived we moved the smaller animal next to one of the larger animals while other teams transported the other dolphins across the flats to the waiting truck. In the photo on the left you can see Kerry taking a respiration (counting number of breaths per minute for each animal - respiration rates and characteristics tell us a lot about stress levels in dolphins) from a short distance. The dolphins were protected from the elements from the sheets and blankets and did not require direct hands on at this point. I knew they were in for a lot of handling and stress with the collection, trip across the mud to the truck, the drive to the release site, the move from the truck to the beach and finally their entrance into the water for release. That's a lot of handling for a stressed animal that has most likely never seen a human before.
Unfortunately, the very fist animal we moved began to show outward signs of advanced stress. We made him as comfortable as possible and kept the environment around him quiet and motion free. Despite our best efforts in supportive care, the animal continued to decline and went into shock. Once shock sets in, there is little we can do in a field situation to relieve suffering, as a result the decision was made to euthanize the animal.
We were able to transport the remaining live animals to the release site where we met up with another team of rescuers who had another two animals. Two animals were selected to carry satellite tags. Kate Sardi and I applied the tags while the other animals were being moved out of the trailers and down to the beach.
We received our first set of data from the satellite tags early this morning. I will be blogging on the satellite tag project next. The most critical time for these animals is the next 72 hours while they recover from the trauma of the stranding and the stress of the transport. These animals are also part of a smaller pod now since several of their pod mates died. What effect that will have on them we do not know.
(Aquarium spokesperson Tony LaCasse explains why dolphins strand in this WCVBtv video and this WHDH video. Learn more about mass strandings from previous posts about the Northeast Region Stranding Network, the humpback whale rescue effort and what not to do if you come across a seal on a beach.)