Monday, March 07, 2005
  marine mammal encounter 2005, take two
Some friends who knew my critter-lovin’ leanings told me they saw on Univision that they were calling for volunteers with wetsuits to help out with the stranded dolphins that have been all over the news down here. Here I had thought that they (whoever “they” are in this case) would have all the help they needed – in the Florida Keys, there really shouldn’t be a shortage of people who want to help dolphins, for crissake. After a bit of tracking down the right people online, I called the Marine Mammal Conservancy who told me to call back the next day, when some of the animals would be moved from Marathon to Key Largo, which would be more in my neck of the woods. Saturday morning, the Key Largo line was busy busy busy, but I tried again in the afternoon and, lo and behold, the lady who answered said they desperately needed help. Ed was in the middle of a regatta, so I signed us up for the 8 p.m. to midnight shift that night.

When Ed got home, we packed up emergency-style and made the 1.5-hour drive, found the Calusa campgrounds, which was our home for the evening. Ed, the poor thing, ate his dinner (consisting of a Lunchables pack) in a panic in the car, then we drove over to the site where the dolphins were being held. For those of you that know Key Largo, it’s right by the Bell South tower. We got out of the car and started gathering our things when an open-backed truck drove past us… carrying two dolphins. Whaa.

They used Publix trucks. See the dolphin's scratched-up little face? They were all messed up there from the stranding - bleeding, scraped. Mew. Yahoo photo.

We suited up in one of the tents that were pitched and had a quick briefing about how to hold the dolphins (one hand on the pectoral, one on the dorsal), areas to avoid (rostrum, genitals), and signs to watch for (steady four-times-a-minute breathing, heartbeat). And were then sent into the (cold!) water, at which point I was GIVEN A DOLPHIN TO HOLD. Just like that!

Yahoo photo. My camera is in the shop. Sigh.

For you non-locals, this story broke last Wednesday, when 70-100 (I think they’re still finding them, actually) rough-tooth dolphins stranded off of Marathon. I’m just now understanding the seriousness of stranding. They’re not just “stranded” in too-shallow water; they’re there for a reason, and stranding causes additional stresses and injuries. For example, illness, errors in navigation (theory), and parasites can cause an animal to strand itself – or, this case may be because of sonar use during navy exercises which were being conducted that day off the coast of Marathon. To a dolphin, a sonar pulse could seem like a very big, scary “noise” which may cause it to surface abruptly, causing what divers would call the “bends”.. Then they’re weak and they’re hurt and they come to shallow water, where we find them stranded.

At that point, volunteers go into action to keep the dolphins hydrated and nourished, protected from sunburn, above water and able to breathe, and monitor their vitals. The ones that are deemed to ill to improve are humanely euthanized. This hurts me so bad (I'm trying to avoid a tasteless pun here) because, as most people realize, dolphins are very intelligent and social. Euthanizing a dolphin isn't just ending its life - it affects all of its dolphin family. Sadness!

So anyway, Saturday at 8 p.m., Ed & I were in the water, walking the dolphins. I got the impression that they were weak, definitely - why else would a wild animal let a big pink person walk them around? But it was a things-are-improving kind of feeling rather than a sad one. Because of the transport, all of the dolphins were being supported at first, but one by one were let go by their volunteers as they seemed to be able to swim independently. By the end of the night, only a handful of dolphins were still being supported. One had pneumonia and was refusing to eat the dead fish a volunteer was shaking in her face ("It's alive, no really!")... but that would just take time and some more pedialyte to get better.

My dolphin (yes, I have taken ownership) let me walk it around for about 10 minutes, at which point Volunteer Coordinator Girl (VCG) asked me to let it go and we'd see how it swam. It was fine. In that short amount of time, I smiled to myself at the sound of the swimming dolphins' breathing, at the sight of a blowhole taking in air (it looks just like a belly button that, ya know, closes), at the heartbeat I could feel when my arm became too weak to hold the animal by its fin so instead basically hugged it. It became agitated as other, We're-Already-Swimming-Independently-Ha-Ha dolphins swam by a little too close, and I once had to calm it down, but other than that, it went.. well.. swimmingly.

This is what we were doing. Pic courtesy Yahoo news.

Ed's dolphin at one point started taking him for a ride that very much reminded me of the shark scene from Ace Ventura, Ed being whipped around the water by an unseen underwater force. Funny. And there his dolphin graduated to unaccompanied swimming.

At that point, most of us in the water were put on Fence Duty. Never ask for fence duty. It's cold over there. A soft fence is put up in the water to enclose the dolphins but, unfortunately, sometimes the dolphins swim into it. They were especially fond of one of the corners for some reason. So we were all given a section of fence to monitor to make sure no one got stuck in it. It was just about this time that the wetsuit started to lose a little of its magic, so there I was at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, tangled in a fence and wondering what shade of blue I would become during the next two hours. Or would it be purple? Could I get hypothermia in 70-degree water? Why is my head cold even though it's not in the water? I wish that older guy weren't here so I could yell over to Ed to remind him of the story in the Onion about a dolphin having gaynar. I wish I had to pee again. I think my fingers are going numb. Are there hot showers at the campground? WAS THAT A MOSQUITO?! (Unfortunately, yes it was. Damn mangroves.)

Then a dolphin swam up to me. "Yes?" I asked him. No answer. He just kinda sat there, close to me. I put my hands underneath his body and enjoyed the feel of his heartbeat while I listened to his breathing to make sure it was okay ("one one-thousand, two one-thousand..."), then supported him with my knee. Then another dolphin swam by, throwing a beer can at my tired little dolphin as he passed, and my dolphin swam off in such a way that I can only describe as catlike. Not that cats swim, but I got the distinct impression that I had held the dolphin for a split-second longer than he wanted and this was Completely Unacceptable.

Then I was back to my lonesome, dolphinless little fence duty. Sometimes they would swim closeby and I could enjoy the moment. Sometimes they would glide by in tight packs of twos and threes and you were reminded how uncool and ungraceful people are in comparison. Then one of the dolphins swam into the fence and I had to back it up and send it on its way. So dolphins can be goofy too.

this is where we were, only it was dark. pic courtesy of yahoo news.

A veterinarian that was on vacation from Quebec had come in the water at the same time as us and her dolphin wasn't doing so well. She walked her little dolphin around gingerly for the whole time we were in the water, smiling patiently at it. Then I hear her ask for my help and realize that another dolphin had nudged himself between her and the dolphin she was supporting. They checked the number on his/her tag. "4, what a surprise." I guess these two dolphins had just wanted to be together the whole time. Sisters, mother-daughter, boyfriend-girlfriend, who knew.. But what a sick dolphin wants, a sick dolphin gets, so another volunteer was set to rafting dolphin No. 4 up to his/her buddy and they both immediately calmed down. So sweet. :)

At some point, a nice girl noticed the next-to-crying-but-I-think-crying-ice-would-hurt look on my face and offered up her dolphin. "She'll help keep you warm. And walking helps." And so, right around hour 3, I was given the job of walking around another dolphin. She became my good little turner as we did laps, trying to avoid the deeper areas. I warmed up and felt good and decided I could stick out my four hours, even though Ed and the nice older guy that came in the water with us were already on shore. Then some guy was sent out to relieve me of my dolphin (bye, sniffle!) and I hobbled back to the shore.

I went over to investigate a pool that was set up by the tent and - bahaa! it housed a mama and baby dolphin. The mom was tired so they were keeping her and the baby a little warmer and a little closer monitored. I felt the water and it was like a HOT TUB, at which point I had to resist the temptation to smack the volunteer who got that cushy assignment across the head. Turned out she was a really nice girl, so I'm glad I was able to keep myself strong.

Then we went in the tent and sat as close to the heaters as we could without, you know, burning ourselves. Then the VCG that I had taken to mocking in the water told Me, Ed, and the Really Nice Girl that she needed us back in the water to relieve some other folks despite the fact that a new shift was set to take over in just a few minutes, at which point we put our FREEZING wetsuits back on and marched back to the water's edge like we were walking to our deaths. Bless their hearts, no one answered when we called out for someone to replace. So then we got to shiver-walk our way back up to the tent, where a nice guy gave me a hot chocolate he had bought for HIMSELF to me just because I looked that miserable. Then we got to put on dry clothes.

The girl is aforementioned VCG. I forgive her for being so crabby. And suggest she buy a drysuit. Pic courtesy of Yahoo news.

Before leaving the site, we stopped at the baby pool to see what was happening. They were tube feeding the baby dolphin.. pedialyte via beer bong. There were probably ten people assisting this effort, all huddled around this tiny dolphin. "The mama's coming up!" someone warned. A girl answered, "She just wants to see what's going on." That girl scooted to the side just enough to let the mama dolphin up, so she was part of the half-circle surrounding her baby. My eyes teared up when I saw that - trusting these sweet hippies with her baby, but wanting to watch what was going on. Ahh. :)

We found out at the dive shop the next day that one of the dolphins had died mid-morning.. maybe the one with pneumonia? A volunteer was holding it when she realized it had stopped breathing. Jesus, how hard would that have been? I thought they were all going to be okay.

Updates from the southern Keys:,0,7182952.story?coll=sfla-home-headlines

I guess they'll be doing this for a couple of more weeks - they wait until all the dolphins are better, then release them as a family - so we may go again this next weekend. And I may get a thicker wetsuit.

Wow, that's such an amazing experience you had.

Keep us posted, if you go back!
Stacey, that was a fabulous story! I really am impressed - what an amazing time! I hope that they all manage to do okay and take care of themselves. Aww!
Wow, excellent story about your experience. I am somewhat ashamed to admit I have been waithing for the weather to warm up before getting back in the water and there you are and at night on top of it.

I will definately write about your generosity and link to your post. Thanks for your assistance.
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I'm Stacey. I'm a 31(!)-year-old Wisconsin girl living in sunny South Florida. The highlights in my life are my lovely boyfriend, my aloof cats, my adorable/adoring stepdogs, my two lumbering tortoises, select family members, being outside, being underwater, taking pictures, yadda yadda. Stay tuned for lots of babbling!

Location: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, United States


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Making a difference

A small boy lived by the ocean. He loved the creatures of the sea, especially the starfish, and he spent much of his time exploring the seashore.

One day the boy learned there would be a minus tide that would leave the starfish stranded on the sand.

When the tide went out, he went down to the beach, began picking up the stranded starfish, and tossing them back into the ocean.

An elderly man who lived next door came down to the beach to see what the boy was doing. Seeing the man's quizzical expression, the boy paused as he approached. "I'm saving the starfish!" the boy proudly declared.

When the neighbor saw all of the stranded starfish he shook his head and said: "I'm sorry to disappoint you, young man, but if you look down the beach, there are stranded starfish as far as the eye can see. And if you look up the beach the other way, it's the same. One little boy like you isn't going to make much of a difference."

The boy thought about this for a moment. Then he reached his small hand down to the sand, picked up another starfish, tossed it out into the ocean, and said: "Well, I sure made a difference for that one!"

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