Saturday, May 27, 2006

Rare dolphin being helped at San Diego Sea World

Employees at SeaWorld San Diego are working round the clock to nurse back to health a rare dolphin that washed ashore at a Corona del Mar beach over the weekend.

The sick baby northern right whale dolphin was thousands of miles from its normal habitat when it beached itself Sunday at Corona del Mar State Beach.

It's unknown why or how it got to Southern California, but it's the first of its kind seen in the area in a long time, experts said.

"I'm astounded," said Orange Coast College professor Dennis Kelly. "There's been so few of these ever come in that even one sighting of these is amazing."

Kelly has been studying dolphins for 32 years, and he's never seen a northern right whale dolphin alive.

The dolphin was "extremely thin" when it was discovered on the beach Sunday, said Michele Hunter, director of operations and animal care at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. Someone had tried to push the dolphin out in the water, but it kept coming ashore, Hunter said.

The dolphin is about 3 1/2 -feet long and weighs only 55 pounds. At that size, it's likely a calf that got separated from its mother, Kelly said.

"It didn't look like it had eaten in quite a period of time," Hunter said.

Pacific Marine Mammal Center employees transported the dolphin to SeaWorld San Diego, where it could be cared for in heated pools, Hunter said. The dolphin traveled inside an Isuzu Trooper, where it rested on pads and was constantly sponged down with water to keep it wet and cool.

Experts don't yet know what the dolphin's odds of survival are. It's on 24-hour watch in a recovery tank, where it's being fed and hydrated, said Dave Koontz, communications director at SeaWorld San Diego.

"We always hope that we can help these animals pull through, but this is a very sick dolphin," Koontz said.

Northern right whale dolphins travel in pods of more than 1,000 and are normally found offshore in the cold waters of the Northern Pacific Ocean. The black-and-white dolphins are narrow and have no dorsal fin, Kelly said.

Since the animal washed up at Corona del Mar state beach, there must have been a pod off-shore at some time. The colder weather patterns of a La NiƱa year made for colder water, which could explain what a pod was doing in Southern California waters. The pod could have followed schools of cold-water fish out of their normal habitat, Kelly said.

The mother and calf likely got separated from the pack. The mother, who's likely dead, probably tried to get her calf as close to shore as possible before she died, Kelly said.

It's unusual for the dolphin to show up in this area and it's amazing that it's alive. Dolphins beach themselves only when they're extremely ill.

"If it can survive, that will be a first," Kelly said.

Animal care specialists at SeaWorld are running tests to try to determine what might be wrong. Kelly said there are a variety of reasons, from dehydration to parasites, that would cause the baby to be sick.

If the mother died, it's possible the calf wasn't getting any food and was suffering from dehydration. The caregivers can give it synthetic dolphin milk and will probably put an older female dolphin in the same tank to make the calf feel calm, Kelly said.

The calf will have a higher survival rate than an adult. Adults are fixed in their behavior, but the young ones can more easily adapt to change, Kelly said.

It's still unlikely that the dolphin will ever return to the wild. The more it needs to be cared for by humans, the more it will grow accustomed to them, and it may not be recognized by its own kind, Kelly said.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"