“On March 2nd, 2005 over 80 rough-toothed dolphins (Steno bredanensis) stranded themselves on the sand flats off of Marathon, Florida with little hope of survival. Some were able to maneuver back into deep water, but many more were sick, trapped, dehydrated, and beaten by the surf. The Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC), along with help from other local agencies, responded to the animals in distress.”
The Marine Mammal Conservancy sent out a call to action that they needed volunteers, lots of volunteers on the nightly local news. Days passed and they finally had moved the dolphins to a lagoon on the Gulf side in Key Largo. I kept saying to my husband, that I wanted to go and help and he said “Go, there is no reason why you cannot do that”. He knew I wanted to do this so bad, and it would get me out of his hair. I really wanted to help the stranded dolphins, those sentient creatures that I have seen bow riding on the bow of my sailboat or power boat many times on the many crossing my husband and I sailed to the Bahamas.
My long time good friends know how passionate and knowledgeable I am about animals, they are always calling me for my opinion on how to care for an animal, injured or not. They know that in one of our many conversations some kind of animal story usually comes up. I’m always helping or rescuing, an animal or bird. They heard of my quest to help these dolphins and donations from my great friends came in and I was able to purchase my own personal wet suit.
The Mammal Conservancy had some suits donated by the local dive shops if I recalled. But I wanted and would much rather have my own. If you are a diver you know you want your own. It would come in handy for bottom cleaning the hull the boat or untangling a fouled propeller and barnacle removal. I’m very thrifty and managed to purchase a new wet suit, shoes and an inner liner skin that would help your suit slide on better. Even shoes!
I lived at the entrance to the Florida Keys and my sailboat was berthed in upper Key Largo, I packed a small little suitcase with some clothes and my new suit and headed to Lower Key Largo.
When I got there I went to the registration booth, signed in and filled out release forms and was assigned to the kitchen. The kitchen was set up under a house on stilts. It was a MASH kitchen. We washed all the stainless steel utensils and checked over very carefully looking for any scales left behind. Then we would spray them with Isopropyl Alcohol . Any scales left behind could make a sick dolphin worse. We were very careful and took great care in the cleaning so that the utensils would be cleaned and properly sterilized for the preparation of the dolphin’s food.
The dolphins were fed Herring stuffed with vitamins and medication which others were assigned that task. I was so good at cleaning and because of my background and education I was asked if I wanted to go and work in the water with the dolphins. I was so ready for my new assignment. I was promoted.
The first thing you had to learn before you even got close to a wild dolphin was to learn how to take hold of a dolphin, a wild dolphin. You were shown the anatomy of the dolphin, the blow hole, the eyes and the fins, dorsal, pectoral. Classes were given and I caught the last class of the day. I learned how to wrangle it without hurting the animal or the animal hurting you. In any event that was easy task for me and everyone was called over to the Dolphin “blowup dummy” and you had to show the different positions on safe holding then you were given the okay to proceed to the water.
I had to take notes and write down the stats on the dolphins. Each Dolphin had a colored tag assigned to them it was a clip on their dorsal fin. It had a number assigned to it also then all this data was most probably fed into a computer and studied as scientifc data on this stranding. The clip colors were Red, Yellow or Blue with a number as their identification. Then I was given the journal to keep the information written as the Veterinarian called out the number on the dorsal fin along with color and the vital information-if they ate or not. The dolphins were fed every two hours and sometimes they did not want to eat. Monitoring was necessary on an hourly/daily basis if these dolphins were to survive and some depending how ill they were, they transfered them either to the ICU pool for more managed care or out to the lagoon where those that were eating and doing well on their own. The feeding was done by Veterinarians themselves or those with more experience. Feeding preparations were always going on those that did not eat at this hour an attempt will be made in the next hour to see if it would eat. Getting them to eat the stuffed Herring was a battle. The herring was stuffed with vitamins and medication.
You were also asked that when you were out in the water, as some were asked to walk out to the perimeter of the enclosed area to keep you hand up out of the water, this way the Dolphin would not confuse your hand for the glimmer of a fish and there by avoiding a possible accident. We would walk out to the fenced area and then asked to make a human wall and slowly walk and bring the dolphins to the Vet. techs and Veterinarians. I never had the opportunity to hold one but they swam by me. Its was an awesome experience.
This was mid March/April and May and although you were in the Florida Keys the water got pretty cold at night it with everyone taking 2 hours shifts helping to either hold up the dolphins or give support to your fellow volunteer and to avoid hypothermia. In any even it was very exciting either during the day or night, adrenaline kept you going.
The Mass stranding, the rescue and release of these wonderful mammals will be with me for the rest of my life. I know what some of the famous rescuers and whale and dolphin activist say. Once you see that smile and you and the dolphins eyes actually acknowledge each others presence, your life will be touch and you will never be the same again.
Unfortunately my Rescue mission came to a halt, a slip on a slimy rock at low tide and I fell and injured my ankle. Tore a ligament and sprained my ankle. I was lucky that I was wearing the wet suit. I had no scratches or scrapes but this could not be happening to me? I worked until I could not walk any longer. The boots and the wetsuit kept the swelling in check. I called my husband and told him he needed to come and get me.
When he arrived, I sat inside the truck cab and I took my booty off, the ankle blew up and we decided that I needed medical care and we proceeded to the Emergency room in the mainland. I left sobbing and crying and I cried all the way to the Hospital not for the pain from my injury but the pain I felt in my heart of not being able to continue to help the dolphins. Leaving my fellow volunteers behind in the rescue facility. I said my good-byes…
A lot of dolphins died. I know that scientific data was gathered from this tragedy and it will help the scientific marine community on how to deal with another mass stranding if it ever happens again. Some had ingested foreign matter that actually killed them. No reason was given or known why this massive stranding occurred. It was an unspoken fact that the Navy and could or was conducting Sonar testing. Its my understanding that the last of this pod was released near the Bahamas. In my dreams… I dream of them swimming freely and healthy in the ocean.
For the Dolphins, For the Whales, For the World.