Dolphins strand on bay shores

Despite rescue attempts, dozens die on mud flats.
The Cape Cod Times 3/20/99

Ed Lyman, left Louanne Colombo, center, and Tim Frasier attend to a white-sided dolphin in Blackfish Creek in Wellfleet. At least a dozen swam into the creek at low tide yestreday and became stranded. Read the story. (Times Photo by Robert Button)

WELLFLEET - As darkness fell yesterday, the death toll continued to rise among white-sided dolphins aground in three towns along Cape Cod Bay. From the inner windings of the Great Marsh in Barnstable Harbor, on the blustery shores of First Encounter Beach in Eastham and at the head of Wellfleet Harbor near the Herring River, lay an estimated 30 to 40 of these sleek, air-breathing marine mammals, many already dead. The estimated count last night was up to 34 dead.

Those that continued to thrash about in the receding waters as the tide ebbed in the afternoon were cradled by volunteer rescuers, as veterinarians assessed the animals' conditions. All too often, the veterinarians decided to euthanize the dolphins with a narcotic overdose. At Wellfleet's Blackfish Creek - named because pilot whales, called blackfish, historically stranded there - the shiny, black bodies and white undersides of four small female dolphins rested motionless on golden salt hay at the marsh's edge. Andy Stamper, one of two veterinarians from New England Aquarium who were on hand, took blood samples from a large male dolphin that was still alive. The dolphin rested on a foam pad, covered by a green tarp. While five volunteers held the strong animal still, Stamper checked its breathing and heart rate, and after a time shook his head. The dolphin had salt water in its lungs, and was not in good shape, he said. The humane thing to do was to end its suffering.

The volunteers who had held and comforted the dolphin, draped themselves over the animal to keep it still as Stamper administered the lethal injection. The animal seemed soothed by the people holding it, and didn't move much. After a few minutes the drug took effect, and the dolphin's blowhole stopped opening and shutting. The sound of its labored breathing ceased. Similar scenes were going on at the mouth of the Herring River in Wellfleet Bay, where an estimated dozen dolphins were trapped. By nightfall, rescuers were still uncertain on the final number, and were planning to return this morning to look for more animals revealed at low tide.

In Wellfleet one dolphin was living and 11 were dead in the Herring River. Four more were euthanized in Chipman's Cove, and five dolphins were dead, one living, in Blackfish Creek. In Barnstable, five or six dolphins, all dead, were still deep in the marsh, and in Eastham, two dolphins that had been alive earlier in the morning were found dead. At 7 a.m. yesterday Eastham Natural Resource Officer Henry Lind got the first report of two Atlantic white-sided dolphins stranded on First Encounter Beach. Lind believed they had been on the beach since 2 or 3 a.m. One had an injury from gulls picking at it; the other had no apparent injuries but did not seem healthy. Lind tagged the two dolphins and tried to hold on to them until New England Aquarium veterinarians arrived, but the wind was pushing out of the northwest at 20 to 30 mph and creating 3- to 4-foot seas that forced rescuers back to shore. Once the tide came in, Lind said, the two dolphins left. One was later seen stranded on the flats just south of Rock Harbor in Orleans. Harbor Master Dawson Farber came to its aid, and the dolphin again swam off.

Connie Merigo, the supervisor of the aquarium's marine mammal stranding team, said there may be more dolphins found today when rescuers resume their search. "It doesn't look good," she said. Part of that prognosis is based on the experience of the stranding of white-sided dolphins, and a few common dolphins, almost exactly one year ago. Over a four-week period from January to February 1998, 97 marine mammals came ashore from Dennis to Wellfleet in the largest such stranding of dolphins along the shoreline of Cape Cod Bay in decades. None survived that stranding, and the prospects are grim for dolphins in this latest incident.

No one knows for sure what caused the 1998 mass stranding, although, as with yesterday's event, there was a high tide and strong onshore winds. Blood analysis will be conducted on the most recent stranding victims, as was done last year.

In all, 25 to 30 volunteers, including four veterinarians, responded to the stranding yesterday. Groups that participated, besides the aquarium, were the Cape Cod Stranding Network, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Cape Marine Animal Rescue and Conservation, or C-MARC, the International Wildlife Coalition, the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, the Center for Coastal Studies and municipal natural resource officers. Staff writer Doug Fraser contributed to this report.

Storm threat keeps marine rescuers on Cape

No new dolphins strand in Wellfleet; count remains at 47.

WELLFLEET - With a storm in the forecast, animal rescue workers from the New England Aquarium stayed in town last night to keep an eye on the waters, hoping there would be no more dolphins stranding themselves on beach shores. "We haven't got any new animals today," supervisor of the Aquarium's stranding team Connie Merigo said yesterday afternoon. "But there's a storm coming in so we're battening down the hatches. We are all on alert and keeping a close eye out," she said.

The team's work yesterday included the continuation of necropsies and post-mortem examinations on the dolphins who have died over the weekend. About 50 dolphins have died in what experts are calling a mass stranding. Saturday, one dead white-sided dolphin was found at Namskaket Creek in Brewster. Several were found dead at Blackfish Creek in Wellfleet.

Live dolphins who were nearly stranded at Lieutenant's Island in Wellfleet Saturday "were swimming around but they went out before the tide got too low and we haven't seen them again," Merigo said. As of yesterday evening, 47 dolphins have died over the past three days in the mass stranding.

The Cape in general, and Wellfleet in particular, is one of the most common stranding spots for marine mammals in the world. Blackfish Creek is the most common stranding areas on the Cape, probably because of its geography and confusing configuration, experts say. White-sided dolphins live in groups of 100 to 1,000. Researchers believe they travel by following a leader or a number of leaders. It could be that the decision of a leader causes many follower dolphins to swim into shallow or marshy areas, some experts speculate. "There are a lot of theories why. We are trying to learn from each incident; trying to piece together the puzzle," Merigo said. "We're not sure we'll ever know why but we'll try to do the best we can," she added.