How To Save A Stranded Dolphin

By Brian Morris

Jan. 26, 2012


A mother and calf common dolphin are transported to the beach by a team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the New England Aquarium before being released back into Cape Cod Bay in Sagamore Beach, Mass., on Jan. 14. (Julia Cumes/International Fund for Animal Welfare)

WOODS HOLE, Mass. — Over the last two weeks, 98 dolphins have been found stranded along the shores of Cape Cod Bay. On Thursday, the International Fund for Animal Welfare said in a statement that 63 dolphins were dead when rescuers arrived; 24 of the 35 found alive have been released, and the majority were spotted swimming off the coast of Maine. 

Mass strandings are not uncommon at this time of year, but it’s unusual for them to continue over such a long period of time. Katie Moore manages the Marine Mammal Rescue and Research program (part of IFAW) and responds to the strandings with help from a network of trained volunteers. When dolphins are spotted close to shore, they employ a variety of tactics to try and herd them back out to the bay.
"We use small boats, sometimes even kayaks, to get in between the shore and the animals and herd them out. And we use a combination of the engine noise and the motion of the boats," she said. "Also we use acoustic pingers, and they emit a high-frequency pinging noise. It’s not painful but it is annoying to the animals and it helps to drive them out."
For the dolphins that do become stuck on shore, Moore and her team attempt to stabilize the animals and assess their condition as quickly as possible. Moore said most of the dolphins are healthy to start with but quickly suffer the effects of being out of the water.
Also, they need a new launching point back into the ocean. Cape Cod is shaped like a giant hook, and once dolphins swim into Cape Cod Bay, they’re often unable to find their way back out. Dolphins are also very social animals, and tend to stick together even when they strand.
"We can’t put them back out into that environment — they tend to re-strand. So we put them in our trucks, continue our health assessments and supportive care and then release them off the other side of the Cape, off the tip of the Cape out in Provincetown, where they have a shot at open water without any sand bars or creeks," she said.
Extreme tide fluctuations have added to the problem in recent weeks.
"We just had our new moon yesterday, so we have extremely low low tides and extremely high high tides. So animals are getting further into the bay than they normally would and then the tide drops out from underneath them and they’re unprepared for that," Moore said.
For now, the MMRR team will continue monitoring the shores of Cape Cod Bay. They’ll be ready to respond if additional strandings occur in the coming days and weeks.

MMRI's parent organization put together this roundup of video and news coverage of the strandings:

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