Cape Cod has just become the home of a first of its kind hospital for dolphins. The Dolphin Rescue Center, located in Orleans and operated by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, plans to treat about twelve stranded dolphins and porpoises on the Cape each year.
Before the facility opened up, rescue teams were operating in mobile clinics that could only hold the animals for a few hours, often not long enough to meet their needs. Now, dolphins will be able to receive care for up to four days, enough time to give many of them a fighting chance before being released back into the wild.
GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath spoke with Sarah Sharp, a rescue animal veterinarian at the Dolphin Rescue Center about the work being done there. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Rath: So as I mentioned, this is a first of its kind facility for dolphins. Tell us a bit more about why Cape Cod needs this kind of a clinic.
Sharp: Absolutely. So Cape Cod, believe it or not, is actually a global hotspot for dolphin strandings. We see the highest frequency of dolphin mass strandings anywhere in the world. This little spit of land that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean, we have a lot of dolphins that unfortunately get trapped there.
So it gives us an incredible opportunity to actually be able to help these animals when they strand alive and to improve the medical care that they need and to put them back out into the wild as quickly as we can. But there are certainly a number of animals where their needs outmatch what we're able to provide in our mobile clinic right now, so this new dolphin rescue center gives us the opportunity to provide that added care that they need [along with] better diagnostics to be making sure that we're making the best decisions for these animals.
Rath: So talk us through that process a little bit. What happens when you encounter a stranded animal up to the care point? What's different now about being able to have this long term care?
Sharp: We are an organization that's always relied heavily on our volunteers, and so when we get a report of a stranded dolphin on Cape Cod, they're the first ones that we call to go out to the scene, find the animal and give us an update on the condition.
When they confirm that it is a live dolphin, our rescue staff heads out in both our mobile clinic and our trucks to be able to access the animal. The animal is assessed in the field and we transport it using specialized stretchers into our mobile rescue clinic. We like to call it Moby for short.
Once inside Moby, we can perform diagnostics on it. We can draw blood and run blood in-house there and do a full health assessment. We can do ultrasounds on these animals and find out from that information that we gain whether or not these animals are going to be good release candidates. If they are, then we take them to Provincetown and release them there, which gives us beach access to really deep water, very close to shore and access to good feeding habitats, basically where the whale watches go right off.
So its great dolphin habitat, it gives those animals a good chance of survival. For the animals that are not quite healthy enough to be released immediately, those animals now will get a second chance, so they'll be able to come back with us. We'll transport them again in Moby to our dolphin rescue center in Orleans. There we will be able to admit them into one of our medical tanks and do better diagnostics on them, so we'll be able to get a better ultrasound in the pool there, and we'll be able to track their progress over a couple of days after receiving additional treatments to improve their condition.
Then once they're ready and healthy enough to be released, we'll do essentially the same release process that we would have done with our other animals, release them back in Provincetown, back into the ocean.
Rath: You know, these are obviously large and very strong animals, but the videos and photos that I've seen of the process, it doesn't seem like they're really resisting. Do you get a sense, and it's a strange question, that the dolphins understand that you're helping them out.
Sharp: Yeah, it's a really good question and I wish they did. I definitely can say in my over two decades of experience that most animals don't really appreciate the fact that you're trying to help them, unfortunately. When we do have our stranded dolphins, they oftentimes ... kind of lie on the foam mats that we provide for them.
But I always tell people, never underestimate a stranded dolphin. They look completely helpless, but they can actually move fairly significantly. They can thrash their tail. They can do a full 360 barrel roll. So they can actually be quite dangerous. We also have safety protocols in place to make sure that people aren't stepping around what we call the danger zone, which is essentially anywhere from the dorsal fin back to the tail. That's an incredibly powerful area. They have impressive muscle structures there, so those animals can do a lot of damage, even though they look fairly harmless as they're lying on the foam mats for us. I wish they knew that we were helping, but we're able to get the job done for them.
Rath: Well, makes it all the more intense from the sounds of it. Talk a bit about the release process. I imagine that also has to involve some precautions given the strength of these animals.
Sharp: Absolutely. So when we release these animals, we obviously will do a whole briefing with our team before we enter the water so that everybody's aware of what the plan is. We all coordinate that effort significantly among the team. Then once we're in the water, we gauge it based on the conditions. Sometimes when we release, the conditions are beautiful. It's flat and calm out there. There's no waves and we can really take our time and reacclimate the dolphin to the ocean and get them pumping their tail, getting them a little bit more prepared to swim after being on land for a couple of hours.
But sometimes we have to release animals into pretty terrible conditions out there just because we hadn't had a choice. So sometimes we can be dealing with waves that are kind of crushing on us and there are significant safety concerns. So that actually is giving us another opportunity through the Dolphin Rescue Center when those release conditions are really not safe for people or for dolphins, we'll be able to bring those animals back to the Dolphin Rescue Center, hold them for a little bit of time until the ocean calms down, and then we'll be able to release them in a much safer condition as well. So the Dolphin Rescue Center is basically going to be able to serve multiple purposes for us that we're thrilled about.
Rath: Is there anything that can be done to to minimize dolphin strandings on the Cape, or because of the the geography and the fact that it's got fish that the dolphins want, is it just going to always be a hotspot?
Sharp: Yeah, I think that's a great question and one I don't really have a great answer to, other than to say that dolphins have been stranding here for hundreds and hundreds of years. We have seen some changes in recent years, more or less a slow increase over the years in the number of animals that are stranding. We're not exactly sure why that's happening.
Certainly there's a lot of changes going on out in the marine environment. The Gulf of Maine in particular is the fastest warming body of water on the planet. So we're certainly starting to see some changes in terms of maybe where the prey distribution is and the dolphins that strand follow the prey. We're seeing some changes in the species that we see strand and the timing of it in terms of when it happens in the year.
Traditionally, we always said our busy season was from January to April as well, when we saw all of our dolphin mass strandings, but now it seems to be a bit more spread out year round. So things are definitely changing. It's a dynamic ecosystem, especially with global warming. It's something that we're paying a lot of attention to. I'm not really sure there's much we can do to decrease the number of dolphins that are actually stranding, so our role right now is to improve the survival of the ones that do.
Rath: Sarah, it's been great talking with you about this. Really fascinating and wonderful work. Thank you.
Sharp: Thanks so much for your interest.