Vetstreet Exclusive: Behind-the-Scenes Look at Cape Cod's Dolphin Rescue Efforts

IFAW/M. Baumgarten
Volunteers with the International Fund for Animal Welfare tend to some
beached dolphins on Cape Cod.

It's March, and some two dozen people stand hip deep in the frigid surf off the tip of Cape Cod, Mass. They watch and wait as four fins swim away in a jet fighter-like formation — then quiet cheers break out on the beach.

Since January, at least 185 common dolphins have stranded themselves along Cape Cod — far surpassing the average number of beachings that typically occur over the course of 12 months. Of the dolphins found alive, 75 percent have been released by the staff and volunteers of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

“The shape of the cape is definitely an issue because you don’t see it happening north of us, and you don’t see it happening south of us — it happens in Cape Cod bay,” says Katie Moore, IFAW’s marine mammal rescue and research manager. “There are other places in Australia and New Zealand that are similar, with a hook-shaped cape that gets them in there. These offshore animals don’t know tides, so when the water goes out, they’re left high and dry.”

Adding further pressure to dolphin rescue teams across the country, the current federal budget proposed for 2013 would eliminate all funding for the National Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Vetstreet's reporter headed out to the shore to meet up with Moore, who started out as a field responder, to get the inside scoop on what’s being done to save the dolphins — and ways the group is working to prevent the strandings from happening in the first place.

Q. Aside from the shape of the bay, what else could possibly cause a stranding?

A. Moore: I think social nature comes into play with every single stranding. It’s hard to prove because we don’t see 90 percent of their life. But based on what we know of other species of dolphins, they tend to be fairly dynamic groups, so even if membership changes, you’re always in a group. You’re never by yourself if you’re healthy. And I think what we're seeing is smaller groups that fragment and come in.

Q. Do you know yet what may have led to this year's mass beachings?

A. We’re more likely to figure out what isn’t the reason. We’re still going through the data, file by file, from every live and dead animal. Then we can start drawing on other databases to look at water temperature, what the research buoys can tell us about wind speed and direction — basically what's different this year from other years or if there isn’t anything different. We did have a lot of people during this event who thought it was due to sonar and naval activity off the coast, and we do know that naval activities have induced strandings. We talked to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Navy, and the closest such activity that took place was near Virginia and North Carolina — there's just no way it affected the animals.

Q. What happens when a marine mammal strands on the shore?

A. In the 1970s and 1980s, most animals were left to die or were euthanized. But data from necropsies revealed that most of them were healthy, aside from the effects of the stranding. So we realized that, if given proper care, these animals could be released. In the first few years that I was doing this in the 2000s, we had a success rate of about 14 percent. During this last event, our success rate has been 75 percent.

Q. What led to such a big jump in the rate?

IFAW/M. Baumgarten
Volunteers release some common dolphins back into the Atlantic Ocean.

A. Supportive care is huge. We have six contractors, plus a contract veterinarian, and we have 300 volunteers across our response area who get there before we do. We train them in assessing the scene, assessing the animal and providing really basic care. They right the animal on the dolphin's stomach, dig small holes along their pectoral flippers for them to rest more naturally and record respirations. People think that the dolphins somehow understand that we are trying to help them, but they don’t. So we also try to do a lot of public education so bystanders don’t stress the animals.

Q. What does your team do when it arrives?

A. We stretcher them up, then load them into our trailers. Dolphins have a great blubber layer, but it doesn’t really do them any good in the air, so we have to monitor their temperature while doing a full health assessment. We check for lesions or injuries, draw blood that's analyzed in the trailer and even test their hearing on the fly. We also do ultrasounds on a lot of the animals to look for blubber thickness and pregnancies, since handling a pregnant animal is different. Then we make the decision about whether or not the dolphin is releasable.

Q. How have this year's unprecedented daily strandings affected your resources?

A. We have over 300 volunteers, and most of these people have jobs, so they’re giving as much time as they can. At one point, we had to say, "We’re not going to call you for a few days to give you time to recuperate." The last time we had an event remotely like this started with a blizzard in December 2005. It was common dolphins, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and pilot whales in the same stranding, and it went on for not quite as long, and there weren’t nearly as many animals involved. It's been two weeks now without any beachings, and we are incredibly relieved. For a while, I didn’t think it was going to end.

Q. Is it possible to prevent beachings?

A. We do some mass stranding prevention, but we need to know that the animals are close to shore. Fortunately, folks on the cape are used to strandings, so we get reports of people seeing animals near shore, and we can try to herd animals out using boats and acoustic alarms or pingers, which were designed for fishermen to attach to their nets to prevent catching marine mammals. But we can’t leave the pingers out there to prevent the animals from coming in because it's been documented that animals can become habituated to them. I think that if we could better understand the hearing range of the species, we could probably do more to prevent strandings.

Q. You are attaching satellite trackers to some of the dolphins. Why?

A. They help us answer the animal welfare part of the question of whether we are doing the right thing by releasing these animals. We’re getting data back showing that the animals go off and do what dolphins are supposed to do. They have a huge range of where they travel, so we also get to see how they’re utilizing their habitat. Our least expensive tag is about $2,300, so that's why every animal doesn’t get one. Plus, you have to pay for the satellite service. Part of the tag has a VHF transmitter, so when the Atlantic Ocean is hospitable enough to let us out there in January and February, we can actually see that the animals are with a larger group and behaving normally.

Q. What's still on your wish list when it comes to much-needed resources?

A. Veterinarians and vet techs are some of our greatest resources because they know how to handle the medical equipment that we use every day. And a nurse is always an incredibly valuable volunteer. We can't survive without volunteers, so having a knowledgeable volunteer on the medical side of things is huge. Look up your local stranding network. If a vet wants to get into some kind of cool exotics work — or get into a little bit of science, too — it's a great way to diversify and also have some fun.

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