Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Cape Cod a deadly trap record stranding shows

The satellite information on those dolphins so far indicates that they are staying at a safe distance from the shore.The remaining 13 dolphins were either dead upon rescuers’ arrival or had to be euthanized.“They’re happening in such large numbers and so fast and furious,” said Chris Duren, a volunteer for the Stranding Network, on Friday.

She said rescuers have been so busy responding to beached dolphin reports that they have not had a chance to sit down, pore over the data they’ve collected so far and diagnose a cause for the strandings. There were four waves of them altogether in the past week. Four dolphins were found high and dry at Great Island in Wellfleet on Thursday, and 17 turned up in various spots between Great Island and Paine Hollow on Friday.

Another five stranded at the Provincetown-Truro town line, behind the Sandcastle Motor Inn on Beach Point, on Saturday afternoon.An additional 26 to 30 dolphins had a close call on Sunday in the Herring River, where they were seen swimming on a high tide. Rescuers implemented their “mass stranding prevention measures” by getting into boats and using sound-emitting devices called “pingers” to shepherd the dolphins back out to the bay before the tide began to drop.

They were herded to the No. 5 buoy at Billingsgate Shoal, Duren said, and rescuers continued to monitor them into the week.The Sandcastle stranding was the sixth multiple dolphin stranding in two weeks and the eighth mass stranding of the winter, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesperson for the New England Aquarium, which serves as a “medical partner” to the Stranding Network.

“The most we’ve had in the last decade is four multiple strandings in a winter,” he said.The dolphin strandings were so numerous and the rescue efforts so intense these past few days that television crews from NBC’s Today Show and reporters from the Boston Globe swooped in to cover the crisis. There was no shortage of drama, heartache or heroism to report as rescuers banded together on the seaweed-strewn flats of Wellfleet or on the cold, dark, wind-bitten beaches of Provincetown and Truro to save what animals they could.

Hauling nylon stretchers and medical bags, and assisted not only by volunteers from the New England Aquarium but from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Stranding Network worked quickly to assess the condition of each dolphin and transport those which still had a chance of survival to safety.

On both Thursday and Friday nights, a long procession of vehicles flashing orange hazard lights could be seen moving slowly down Route 6 from Wellfleet to Provincetown as the batches of live dolphins found during the day were towed to Herring Cove for release.On Thursday, three of four dolphins survived the traumatic overland trip and, carried in their slings by teams of rescuers, reached the safety of the waves.

Rescuers breathed a sigh of relief two days later when, tracking them via a satellite tag implanted in one of them by Bob Cooper of the New England Aquarium, they could see that the dolphins were well offshore. They were making a beeline, it appeared, for Stellwagen Bank.On Friday, five dolphins, including one calf, had to be carried several hundred yards from where they stranded at Paine Hollow before they, too, were put in the back of a truck and towed 15 long, dark miles to Herring Cove.

By 8 p.m., LaCasse said, all five were back in the sea.There was some initial trouble when one of the dolphins became momentarily disoriented in the surf and began swimming in a direction that made rescuers nervous. But soon enough it righted its course and headed out with the others.LaCasse said the satellite tagging of released dolphins is an innovation that is “pretty exciting.”

It’s allowed them to track a number of white-sided dolphins that were released last winter after being stranded on Cape beaches — so far those animals seem to be doing well, he said. “The great value to satellite tags is we can get this incredible amount of information real-time,” LaCasse said.Rescuers know from their satellite information, for instance, that one of the dolphins released on Friday was travelling “just off Race Point and holding there” by Saturday.

(They think it was sticking closer to shore because of the calf that was in the group.)Wildlife experts have been unable to say with any certainty exactly what is causing these multiple strandings. The more recent strandings are considered especially unusual in that they involve two species of dolphin — white-sided dolphins and common dolphins.

They are both open-ocean animals, but common dolphins are distinguished by their long beaks, which makes them strike a resemblance to bottle-nosed dolphins, while white-sided dolphins are a bit bulkier in stature and reportedly less skittish than their counterparts.Katie Touhey, executive director of the Stranding Network, paused from her whirlwind schedule on Monday to comment on the situation. She said the dolphins that were stranding showed no outward signs of poor health or ear infections or any other physical condition that might cause them to strand.

Nor were they thinner than they should be. Signs of emaciation would support the theory that the dolphins had left the open sea for more dangerous inshore waters because their normal food supply was depleted and they needed to forage for baitfish in riskier locales.Touhey pointed out, though, that while “we’re not seeing anything overtly wrong, we don’t have any of the lab results back yet.”

Those are due within two weeks.As for possible reasons why the dolphins may be stranding, “There’s two things that it’s important for people to remember that are common to all dolphin strandings on the Cape,” she said. One is that “these are very social animals, and because of that social structure they stay together in the wild, which doesn’t serve them well when one of them comes ashore.

”The other is that “Cape Cod is like a trap” for dolphins — as it is for turtles and other creatures that become stuck in the bay — because of its hook-like geography. And Wellfleet, because of its own shoreline shape, is like “a hook within a hook … a trap within a trap.”

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"