Sometimes, because of human activities, wild dolphins get in trouble. It may happen if a dolphin gets tangled in fishing gear, or with a rope from a crab trap, or even in human clothing.
If the situation threatens the dolphin’s life, we will obtain permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a dolphin rescue. If the dolphin requires treatment, it will be taken to a dolphin rehabilitation facility.
Once the dolphin has recovered, it will be released. We then follow its movements and behavior in the wild to monitor how well the it is doing.
Sometimes, the life of a dolphin is directly threatened by being tangled in human gear – fishing line, ropes, or even clothing.
In these instances, after receiving permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service, we will try to intervene to save the dolphin’s life.
The rescue effort usually involves briefly capturing the dolphin so it can be disentangled and examined by a veterinarian. If the dolphin is healthy enough, it is then released. The rescue team usually includes, staff from Mote Marine Laboratory and the SDRP, and local volunteers.
If the dolphin is too sick to be released, it is taken to the Mote Marine Lab Dolphin and Whale Hospital for treatment.
If the treatment is successful, the dolphin is released into the wild, if practical, near where it was first found. The subsequent movements of the dolphin are monitored when possible to determine if the rehabilitation was successful.
In February 2010, a nine-month-old calf was observed with line wrapped around her body in front of her flippers. She was the seventh calf of 32-year-old Sarasota resident FB25.
The line was constricting the calf, forming a deep indentation into her skin. This threatened to cut through the skin, and it was potentially life threatening.
On the second day of a rescue operation, we successfully caught the calf and her mother in shallow water. We removed the line and a piece of metal wire attached to it.
The calf, C257, was nicknamed “Nellie” in honor of Dr. Nellio Barros, our colleague who passed away in early 2010.
We released the pair together on-site.
Nellie been seen with her mother repeatedly since the release, and she looks great.
Ginger: December 2008
In December 2008, Ginger, a 3-year-old female dolphin, was found stranded. She was the newly independent first calf of Sarasota resident dolphin F127.
Ginger was transported to Mote Marine Lab Dolphin and Whale Hospital. She was treated for gastro-intestinal and respiratory problems.
During treatment, she was only fed live fish (without humans in sight). This strategy was designed to help her have a smooth transition back into the wild, and to minimize chances she would go to boaters and anglers for hand-outs.
Dive Deeper to learn about Ginger
Student intern helps with post-release radio tracking of Ginger in March 2009.
Almost 2 months later, she was released back into Sarasota Bay. Since then she has been seen often, feeding normally, and occasionally joining groups with her mother and her mother’s new calf.
In July 2006, Scrappy, an 8-year-old male, was seen tangled in a large piece of unidentified fabric.
Scrappy was temporarily captured, and freed from what was determined to be a bathing suit.
His head had gone through one of the leg holes, and the suit had worked its way back to the leading edge of his flippers, where it was cutting deeply through the skin on both sides.
He was treated by veterinarians, and released.
Since his release, Scrappy has been seen often, and he has so far avoided any other unfortunate fashion statements.
A 42-year-old male dolphin, FB28, became tangled with fishing line. The line was wrapped from the dorsal fin to the tail fluke, restricting his movements.
In July, 2007, a rescue team approached FB28 while he was swimming, and cut the line free from the dorsal fin. This freed him from the visible restriction caused by the fishing line. FB28 eventually cleared the remaining line from his fluke on its own.
Since then, FB28 was seen many times with no sign of any lasting injury.
The white material on his dorsal fin is a fungal disease that has persisted for many years.
FB28 is one the dolphins tagged during the 1970-1971 pilot study that started our long-term research program in Sarasota Bay.
Monitoring Released Dolphins
Dolphins who are treated at the Mote Marine Lab Dolphin and Whale Hospital (MMLDWH) are released as soon as the veterinarians and the National Marine Fisheries Service feel the animal is healthy enough to be set free.
Usually they are released near the location where they were first rescued. After release we try to monitor their activities.
If it’s in the SDRP area, a small radio transmitter may be attached to the dorsal fin to allow us to track the dolphin from a boat.
In the case of Ginger we were able to check in on her nearly every day for the 2-month life of the transmitter.
Observations confirmed she had returned to areas where she was previously sighted. She seemed to be hanging around the same crowd of dolphins as before, and otherwise she still appears “normal.”
Sometimes a sick dolphin or small whale that normally lives well offshore strands. Once they have been treated and are healthy again, they are released back offshore, if possible near the appropriate habitat for their species.
With offshore animals we don’t have the resources to monitor them by boat after release. So when possible, we use satellite- linked transmitters to track their movements and their dive behavior.
Tracking an offshore dolphin or whale, sometimes supplemented by an occasional (and expensive!) aerial observation, gives the science community new insights into the movements and activities of these otherwise hard-to-study animals.
For instance, the satellite-linked tracking records showed that a Risso’s dolphin named Betty, usually made only shallow dives after being released in 2007. On occasion though, she made dives to 800 meters deep and stayed submerged as long as 15 minutes.
All photos © Sarasota Dolphin Research Program under NMFS permit #522-1785