Thursday, November 03, 2005

Dead dolphin found by tourists

When two tourists and a Lee County resident dragged a dead dolphin ashore on Fort Myers Beach on Friday morning, they unwittingly broke the law.Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, touching a dolphin in the wild, even a dead one, is a federal offense, unless the person doing the touching has the proper permits or is a member of a marine mammal stranding network."I had no idea," said medical technician Mindi Kincade, 37, of Indianapolis.

"We were just trying to help."

The story began at about 10:30 a.m. when Kincade and Cindy Helfer, also 37 and from Indianapolis, saw a dead juvenile dolphin floating in the Gulf of Mexico about 100 feet from the beach.Three other dolphins swam around the carcass, with at least one apparently pushing it.
"For a mother to remain with a dead calf for a period of time, days, sometimes longer, is not unusual," said Randy Wells, director of Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Research.

"They will continue to push the carcass around, holding it to the surface. They're engaged in epimeletic behavior — supportive behavior — supporting live animals or carcasses."Not knowing what to do, Kincade and Helfer watched the dolphins until Priscilla Longua, a volunteer for the Ostego Bay Marine Science Center on San Carlos Island, showed up and waded toward the carcass.Ostego Bay had received numerous calls about the dolphins and had tried to contact authorities before Longua went to the beach.

"I assumed she had authority," Helfer said. "We asked if she needed help, and she said, 'Yes.' We thought we were doing the right thing."So Helfer and Kincade followed Longua into the water.
"I said, 'What do you want me to do?' and she said, 'Grab it if you can,'" Kincade said. "She kept talking to the dolphins, saying, 'Love and compassion, love and compassion.'"I grabbed hold of the tail fin, which didn't make the other three dolphins very happy. One dolphin knocked me away from it one time, but I got hold of it again."State scientists learned about the carcass and attending dolphins Thursday but chose to wait until the dead animal was on the beach before recovering it, said Denise Boyd, marine research associate the Florida Marine and Wildlife Research Institute Southwest Field Station in Port Charlotte.

"It's dangerous for us to interfere with the natural process," Boyd said. "We encourage people not to try to interfere with the natural process."We need to let it play out. I know it's hard for people to watch and understand."Within minutes, the women got the carcass to shore, and Longua left the beach.

None of the women belong to a marine mammal stranding network, so technically, they violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act.But authorities won't be seeking them out.

"I'm sure they were just trying to help, in the best interest of the animals," said Blair Mase, NOAA-Fisheries Southeast stranding coordinator."It's a gray area. You could consider what they did a 'take,' a violation. But educating these people is the way to go."FWRI scientists recovered the carcass Friday afternoon and took it the Southwest Field Station, where it was put in a freezer until a necropsy, or post-mortem examination, could be performed.

Although she felt bad about breaking the law, Kincade was excited about the adventure."It was very cool," she said. "I'll remember this forever."

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"