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Cape Officials Race To Save Stranded Dolphins 05:12
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A mother and calf common dolphin are transported to the beach by a rescue team before being released back into Cape Cod Bay at Scusset Beach, Saturday, in Sagamore. (AP)
A mother and calf common dolphin are transported to the beach by a rescue team before being released back into Cape Cod Bay at Scusset Beach, Saturday, in Sagamore. (AP)

Marine animal rescuers on Cape Cod are calling it the biggest dolphin stranding in recent memory. Since Thursday, 59 dolphins have become stranded on beaches and sand bars from Dennis to Wellfleet. Twenty-seven of them were found alive, and rescuers were able to release 19 back into the ocean.

For more on the phenomenon, WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Ian Robinson, animal rescue director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which is based in Yarmouth Port and is heading up the rescue operations. We asked him how these strandings compare to what he typically sees this time of year.


Ian Robinson: We often do get strandings in the winter of live dolphins. In fact, Cape Cod is one of the dolphin stranding capitals of the world, along with some places in Australia and New Zealand. It is a natural phenomenon and it is a regular phenomenon. But to get so many animals spread out over such a wide area, within such a short period of time, is quite unique. Often it’s three or four, maybe a dozen animals in total, of which half of them we might find alive. Those kind of numbers are more normal.

Sacha Pfeiffer: What is it about Cape Cod that gives it that unfortunate distinction?

If you look at the geography of Cape Cod, the shape of it, on the inside of that, the Cape Cod Bay area, there’s a lot of shallow sand banks and sand bars, and mud flats and creeks. Certain times of year, with certain weather conditions, dolphins tend to come into that area. And then, when the tide starts to go down, it seems they get confused as to what the way out is. And, basically, when the tide goes, within a few minutes what was several feet of water can suddenly turn into just a dry sand bank or a dry mud flat. And sometimes it’s a race against time: can you get to the dolphin before the tide does? And, of course, if the tide re-floats the dolphin, then it’ll be washed away and may end up somewhere else.

That leads to my next question, which is, are there times that you do rescue a dolphin and get it back to water, and it ends up stranded all over again?

That can happen. One of the great advantages that we have now is we do have the equipment available to be able to move these animals across to a different beach — to a deep-water beach, which has access to the ocean. Because, initially, if we go back, say, 10 years, when people were starting to do this, often the only alternative was to try and, as the tide rose, to push the animals back into the water in the area where they had stranded. And, of course, they had the same problem. They don’t know the way out. So they would just come back onto the beach, and then you get a lot of re-strandings.

The other thing we’ve done is that we tag these animals sometimes with satellite tags. We don’t just push the animals back and then they wander off and strand somewhere that we don’t see them, or they die at sea. We know that’s not happening, because the satellite tags actually show us that these animals — if we can get them back into the water in good condition and in the right place — will actually go out and rejoin pods of wild dolphins and swim naturally and feed naturally after release.

You have taken part in several dolphin rescues over the last several days. Describe to us what that process is like.

With our staff and volunteers, we will go out with, basically, a flexible stretcher and get the animal onto that stretcher. And then we bring them into our trailer, and there we will do a thorough health assessment. It’s absolutely exhausting work. I mean, crawling around in the mud, going into the sea and the waves to try and release these animals, carrying them long distances, is very, very tiring. But it’s something which is incredibly emotionally fulfilling when you see an animal swim away strongly from a release.

I am married to a biologist and he tends to have a very matter-of-fact view about strandings like this. He thinks it’s Darwin at work, and that we’re seeing a survival-of-the-fittest situation, and that if a dolphin strands itself then that dolphin apparently was not cut out to survive in the ocean. Do you think that’s too harsh of a view of this?

It is a rather harsh view. There are those times when animals simply make mistakes, or climatic conditions and geography just conspire against them. And the fact that we have such good results on animals which, having been released, have been seen back in the wild doing well, shows that the animals that we’re releasing are not actually going to die anyway, are not actually failures. And we’re just giving them a second chance.

Any parting advice for someone who may be taking a winter beach walk on the Cape and come across a stranded dolphin?

The first thing is, don’t try and do anything on your own, both for the sake of the dolphin and the sake of yourself. There are dangers involved in that. The best thing to do is to phone our emergency hotline, which is 508-743-9548. Whoever is on that hotline will give you advice on what to do next. But usually the best thing to do is to observe from a safe distance, and wait for expert help.

This program aired on January 17, 2012.

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