If you’ve ever been pleasantly surprised by a dolphin peeking up at you from the ocean, you’ve experienced the joy of connecting with another living spirit. We smile at their playful antics – surfing waves, making aerial leaps or riding boat wakes. With their protruding beaks and conical teeth, dolphins seem to smile right back at us.
Dolphins have graced our oceans for millions of years. Their mystical charm extends all the way back to Greek myths. Ancient seafarers considered dolphins a sign of good luck. Modern legends abound about dolphins protecting swimmers from shark attacks, saving capsized boaters, even swimming beside surfers. Their intelligence and social nature are widely recognized.
Cape Cod waters host a diversity of marine life, including over 20 species of marine mammals. Sadly, all too often when we see dolphins along Cape Cod’s shores, they are stranded on a beach or swimming in dangerously shallow waters. It’s surprising that such an intelligent animal would find itself in distress, but the Cape Cod hook jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean makes this area a deadly trap for whales, dolphins and other marine life. In fact, Cape Cod is one of the three busiest marine mammal mass stranding spots in the world, along with areas of Australia and New Zealand.
Sometimes stormy seas disorient dolphins and they lose their way in the finger-like channels that line the crook of the Cape. Other times, injured or sick dolphins wash up on a beach. Consequences of human actions – such as a boat strike or entanglement in marine debris – can cause individual dolphins to strand. Dolphins are social animals and rarely travel alone. Offshore, most dolphin species swim in pods of hundreds. So, unfortunately, when one animal heads toward shore, others often follow it.
The Cape Cod Stranding Network, part of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (CCSN-IFAW), is the only organization on Cape Cod dedicated to rescuing stranded marine mammals. First established as an independent organization in 1998, CCSN became an active member of the Northeast Region Stranding Network. Thanks to their experience and lessons learned over the years, their success rate continues to rise. According to Katie Touhey, IFAW Emergency Relief Manager and head of the Cape Cod Stranding Network, the annual average percent of cetaceans successfully released from mass strandings has grown from 14 percent in 1999 to 50 percent in 2007.
The Stranding Network gets calls every year from people in Wellfleet sighting dolphins stranded near Great Island or in the treacherous marshes of Blackfish Creek and other estuaries. Katie notes, “Once a dolphin strands, time is a critical factor in responding. Our volunteers are often first on the scene and administer preliminary care: removing sharp rocks or shells from underneath the animal, digging holes in the sand or mud for the dolphin’s pectoral flippers to reduce the chance of injury to internal organs, and covering its sensitive skin with a light sheet or blanket if it is having difficulty regulating its body temperature. Volunteers provide critical help until we can get there.”
When CCSN-IFAW staff arrives, a complete health assessment is carried out. This includes an examination of reflexes, behavior, respiration rate, heart rate, blood analysis, overall health and severity of stress/shock. The scene is kept as quiet and calm as possible to minimize stress. These assessments help responders decide whether or not the animals are healthy enough to be released back to the wild. Rescuers must keep in mind that returning one sick dolphin to the wild could potentially endanger hundreds more if that animal re-strands and brings the remainder of the group with it. The stakes are high.
Rescuers place the dolphins on special marine mammal stretchers and soft foam on the beach until they are ready to transport them for release. When enough water is available, the staff arranges the stretchers in a star shape in the water; experience has shown that dolphins are calmer when they are facing each other so they thrash less and their vocalizations are less erratic. Most often, the dolphins are moved over land to a better release site. In these instances, they are placed on foam padding in trailers and trucked over to Herring Cove beach in Provincetown or Head of the Meadow beach in Truro where the ocean quickly opens to deeper water.
Last February, three sub-adult Atlantic white-sided dolphins stranded on the oyster beds near Chipman’s Cove in Wellfleet Harbor. One of the dolphins died immediately but the other two were healthy enough for release. With help from the Wellfleet Shellfish Department, AmeriCorps Cape Cod and CCSN-IFAW staff and volunteers, the animals were carried onto the transport trailer and taken to Truro. Upon arrival at Head of the Meadow beach the sun was setting, creating another incentive for a swift and safe return to the sea. Timed effectively with the incoming wave sets, two teams of people made their way into the frigid water with the dolphins on stretchers and released them back to the ocean.
Certainly the best way to ensure survival of dolphins near shore is to prevent strandings from occurring in the first place. In 2002, CCSN-IFAW began an innovative program – the only successful one of its kind in the world to date – to prevent mass strandings of dolphins and whales. This program depends on early warnings from the general public and town officials about the presence of dolphins in hazardous locations where they are likely to strand when the tide recedes. Spotters from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies will also notify CCSN when they see pods of dolphins close to shore during their aerial surveys in Cape Cod Bay.
When there’s a report of dolphins or whales in a treacherous area, the stranding team rushes its boats to the location to drive the animals back out to safer waters. The combination of a sweeping boat motion and the use of small acoustic devices called pingers – because they emit a pinging noise every few seconds – annoys the dolphins enough to make them swim away. Katie Touhey is pleased that this method has proven successful. “With Atlantic white-sided dolphins, we have been able to safely prevent mass strandings in approximately 96 percent of the cases with the use of pingers and boat herding,” she said.
An important part of CCSN’s work is sharing these successful techniques. Based on their expertise, the team was invited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to join in a mass stranding response in a remote bay in Madagascar this past June. Katie led local teams in attempts to herd melon-headed whales out of shallow creeks into deep waters of the Grand Lac. She also trained local personnel in the use of herding techniques and left pingers with local authorities continuing attempts to keep whales out of the shallow areas.
In this way, CCSN is helping to build local capacity to save stranded animals around the world. Brian Sharp from the Center for Coastal Studies marvels at CCSN’s growing reputation. “It’s rewarding to see how many eyes are on the work that CCSN and IFAW are doing. Sharing knowledge like this helps lessen the learning curve for rescuers in other coastal areas,” he said.
The sight of whales and dolphins close to Cape Cod shores has always garnered excitement. “Back in the 1800s, when pilot whales would strand, townspeople would rush to the shore to scavenge for meat. Today, we see the same level of excitement when whales or dolphins are in distress, but now concerned community members rush to help the animals survive,” Brian commented. He credits CCSN with encouraging communities to take responsibility for stranded animals and for attracting large numbers of volunteers to help augment the efforts of a small core staff.
For those of us living on Cape Cod surrounded by the ocean, our aquatic neighbors are a constant source of curiosity and astonishment. Our responsibility to protect the ocean environment and its inhabitants is apparent each time we count our blessings for the breathtaking vistas that surround us. We owe a debt to dolphins and other marine mammals for gracing our oceans and enriching our lives. Thanks to the staff, volunteers and supporters of IFAW’s Cape Cod Stranding Network, we are fostering a sense of stewardship in our community for these animals, ensuring that generations to come of humans and dolphins alike will enjoy this magical place we all call home.
Written by Robin Clarke, Winter 2008
What to do if you see a stranded dolphin, seal or whale
Never touch a beached animal. Often sick, injured or distressed animals will defend themselves and can cause serious injury.
Sick animals can transmit disease to humans and pets. For your safety and that of the animal, please remain 150 feet away, as mandated by federal guidelines.
Call the CCSN hotline immediately. If a dolphin, porpoise, or whale is on the beach, it needs immediate professional assistance. Do not push the animal back into the water.
It is normal for seals to rest on shore. Seals are semi-aquatic, spending some time on land to rest, molt and pup. If a seal appears ill or injured the best thing you can do is to let it rest and report it to the CCSN Hotline.
Be aware that marine mammals are protected by law.
It is illegal to touch, feed, or otherwise harass a dolphin, porpoise, whale or seal.
CCSN hotline: 508-743-9548