SDRP Director Randy Wells provides an interesting glimpse into the difficulty of mounting a highly successful dolphin rescue (below). Usually dolphin rescues are not nearly this easy.
The life of a bottlenose dolphin calf was threatened by entangling fishing line. It was captured, freed of the line, and released 17 minutes later.
The calf had been observed on and off for more than 3 months with the line wrapped through its mouth and around its body. It was near St. Petersburg, FL
(about a 90 minute drive north of the SDRP lab).
When the line didn’t come free on its own, it threatened the health of the calf, so NOAA officials requested that Randy lead a rescue effort in early November.
The subsequent rescue was publicized in widely – Randy even heard about it from a friend in Mozambique.
Coordinating the rescue was complicated because multiple agencies and organizations participated, a large crew was needed of experienced dolphin handlers who could be ready on 24 hour notice to travel to the boat launch site, good weather was important, and the dolphins needed to be sighted nearby on the previous day.
Oh, and there was no formal funding for the rescue effort, so it was a team of the willing and available.
The team consisted of participants from: the SDRP/CZS, NOAA/NMFS, FWC MMPL, Florida University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Mote Marine Laboratory, Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab, Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and the Florida Aquarium, as well as Dr. Ann Weaver, the researcher who originally documented the entanglement and monitored the calf, and Larry Fulford, a commercial fisherman with more than 27 years of experience with dolphin capture-release efforts.
When the rescue was over, the calf and mom were behaving normally. The wounds from the monofilament fishing line were deep, but the veterinarians were guardedly optimistic that the wounds would heal and the calf would survive.
Dr. Weaver will be on the watch to monitor the mom and calf as time goes on.
Entangled Dolphin Calf (Tt256) Rescue: 15 November 2011
Rescue Lead: Randall Wells, PhD
During the week of 5 August 2011, Dr. Ann Weaver, from Argosy University, reported to NOAA a 6-month-old bottlenose dolphin calf entangled in fishing line in the John’s Pass area, a 6.5 mile stretch of ICW on the west side of the St. Petersburg, FL peninsula. The entangled calf (Tt256) and its mother (Tt242) were observed in the ICW north of Tom Stuart Causeway on 2 July 11, 28 July 11, and 31 July 11. It appeared that the fishing line surrounded the calf’s body entirely, with a large wad of tangled fishing line tethered to its left side (see drawing by Weaver below). The calf’s mother is a long-term resident in the John’s Pass area.
The calf was not seen again until late October. The line was still on the animal, and was cutting deeply into the mouth and dorsal fin (see Weaver photo). Based on the photos of the calf indicating that the calf’s condition had worsened and the line was not coming off on its own, NOAA/NMFS requested that I lead a rescue capture of the dolphin.
Rescue efforts planned for 3 November and 7 November were postponed either because the calf was not seen the day before, or winds were too strong. Other days were not possible due to unusually persistent high winds or lack of resource availability. Among the essential ingredients were: 1) winds less than 15 kts, 2) availability of Larry Fulford (experienced dolphin catcher with net boat and SDRP net), 3) availability of experienced marine mammal veterinarians, 4) availability of FWC MMPL* staff and their 3 boats, and 5) availability of sufficient experienced dolphin handlers to comprise a team of 35 people.
All of these conditions came together on 15 November, 2011. The team consisted of participants from:FWC MMPL*, CZS/SDRP**, NOAA***, University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Mote Marine Lab, Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and the Florida Aquarium.
Conditions were nearly ideal early on the morning of 15 November. Fog was in the area, but it did not hamper our efforts. Winds, for once, were calm, and the bay was slick. Ann Weaver’s scout boat located the mother-calf pair within about a quarter mile of the Veteran’s Park boat ramp shortly after sunrise, and they remained with the animals until the other 5 boats of the fleet could be launched and join them. Dr. Randall Wells was the overall Rescue Lead. Dr. Brian Balmer was the designated lead for animal/net handling off the boats. Dr. Mike Walsh was the lead vet. NOAA oversight was provided by Jessica Powell.
The plan was to capture the dolphins in <5’ of water, and to minimize the handling time, holding them only long enough to remove the gear from the calf before releasing it with its mother. Contingency plans had been developed should the situation be more complicated than anticipated (i.e., injuries to the calf would require treatment at an rehabilitation facility).
After a brief briefing (made more brief because the dolphins were in an ideal location nearby) and distribution of Navy mats (flotation mattresses in case of a
deep water capture), PFD vests for crews, depth poles, and net anchors, the team left the ramp docks at 09:38. By 09:44 we had the dolphins in sight to the east of Turtlecrawl Point, in about 5 ft of water. They briefly moved out to the ICW in about 10 ft of water near ICW #18/19, then went back to the west into about 3-4 ft of water. Larry Fulford set on them slowly with a small compass at 09:53. It was too shallow for the other rescue boats to move at high speed, so they approached the net slowly.
The dolphins moved at slow/moderate speed within the net compass, and the boats motored slowly to positions around the compass. Because it was so shallow, I deployed the entire team to take up positions around the net. The pair tested the net near the net boat, but came back out. At 09:56 the calf swam into the net on the other side of the net boat, but did not thrash much, while mom circled calmly inside the net corral. We restrained the calf at 09:57, and removed the monofilament fishing line that was running like a bridle through its mouth, cutting deeply into his jaw and cheeks, wrapped around his right flipper and again cutting deeply into the tissue, and cutting several inches into the leading edge of the dorsal fin at the base. Oxygen was administered above the blowhole with most breaths. The calf, a male, was about 162 cm long, and had a max (DFF) girth of 89.5 cm. Throughout the procedures the calf was active and alert, exchanging whistles with mom as she circled 10-20 ft away. He was given an antibiotic injection and released at 10:14.
Upon release, he quickly joined mom and they swam about 50 yds away, and immediately went back to being dolphins, milling in the channel with the kid surfacing in typical calf-position alongside and slightly behind the mom’s dorsal fin. Given his attitude and reasonably good body condition, we have high expectations for him.
The team then returned to the boat launch area, and we were back at Mote by about 12:30.
*FWC MMPL: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory
**CZS/SDRP: Chicago Zoological Society staff working with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program
***NOAA: NOAA Fisheries Service Southeast Regional Office
Do you support conservation organizations? If so, please consider supporting the SDRP. Become a member or donate to the SDRP.