An alligator was inside the dolphin capture enclosure! That’s a first!
But it was part of a most unusual dolphin rescue in a small lake near of Everglades City in southwest Florida (about 160 miles from Sarasota).
The 8.8-foot male dolphin was first spotted by an airboat tour, swimming in a place it didn’t belong. He was well away from the Gulf of Mexico, in brackish water, and he was reachable only via miles of narrow, shallow creeks and grass flats, some only inches deep. He would not have been able to leave on his own accord.
Without intervention, the animal likely would have died, said Gretchen Lovewell, manager of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Stranding Investigations Program. “We think the dolphin swam into this area on a very high tide,” Lovewell said. “After the tide went out again and without much rain in the area, there was no way the dolphin would have been able to get back to Chokoloskee Bay. The water was so shallow that the dolphin spent a lot of time swimming on his side, and the tips of his flukes had signs of scrapes and abrasions from hitting the bottom.”
Denise Boyd of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received a call about the dolphin from Speedy’s Airboat Tours, and investigated. After consultation with NOAA, she organized a rescue team of about 25 people, including the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), Mote Marine Laboratory’s Stranding Investigations Program, Disney’s Science and the Environment, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and Big Cypress National Preserve.
Dr. Randy Wells, Director of the SDRP, said this was one the of the most challenging rescues he’s ever been involved in during his nearly 44 years of conducting dolphin research and rescues.
“There was an 8-foot alligator in the net enclosure we created to capture the dolphin,” Wells said. “We were working in ankle to knee-deep mud. And there were many miles of shallow, twisting, narrow mangrove tunnels to navigate by airboat in order to get the dolphin back to the bay so it would have a chance to survive. Fortunately, after we got to the bay, the dolphin swam away in good condition.”
Before it was released, the animal was outfitted with a satellite-linked tag so Dr. Wells can monitor the dolphin’s progress remotely. “Being able to follow the animal after release helps us to know whether a rescue has been successful and guides possible future rescues.”
The dolphin was nicknamed “Speedy” to thank Speedy’s Airboat Tours for finding the dolphin and for playing such a critical role in the animal’s recovery. “Things went amazingly well considering all the challenges,” Lovewell said. “Without Speedy’s airboats and experienced captains, we could never have mounted this rescue.”