Monday, July 07, 2008

Baby dolphin rescued by Florida team

A picture was worth a young dolphin's life.

Researchers at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce were taking pictures for their Indian River Lagoon dolphin identification program when they noticed a calf they know as C1Bitt with a belt from an engine wrapped around it.

"We removed the belt before any serious medical complications arose," said Steve McCulloch, program manager of the marine mammal-stranding program at Harbor Branch. "It's more than likely it would have died a very slow and agonizing death over a long period of time, a very long period of time."

Last week, the baby and its mother, who may be pregnant again, were swimming along just fine.
"It's a pretty rewarding experience, what we're doing," McCulloch said.

Harbor Branch, now part of Florida Atlantic University, has a database of about 1,000 lagoon dolphins. The creatures tell researchers much about the health of the environment and how it is changing, he said.

McCulloch said four dolphins have been saved from entanglements and 12 others have been rescued and released in the area in the past 10 years.

The photo ID team first saw the young dolphin in distress on June 6 while it was swimming with its mother. The team attempted to stay with the pair, but they slipped away.

The mature female was first documented in 2001 and named Bitt after the natural nicks on her dorsal fin, and the calf was born about 2005.

They were spotted again on June 19 and the rescue was mounted.

Harbor Branch, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Service and Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute all sent personnel.

After more than 12 hours, the teams could not get the dolphins away from eight other dolphins swimming with them as they tried to maneuver the mother and baby into a safe, shallow area suitable for using a net. Just as they were about to give up and try again on the weekend, rescuers finally herded the pair onto a shallow sandbar.

Harbor Branch veterinarian Dr. Juli Goldstein examined the calf as his mother stayed close to the operation.

"Everybody was amazed to see the communication that takes place between the mother and baby," McCulloch said. "They were whistling back and forth in a comforting tone." It was as if the dolphins knew they were being helped, he said.

The rescue effort, estimated to cost $5,000, was funded entirely from the sale of Protect Wild Dolphins specialty license plates, according to Harbor Branch. The baby was tagged with a bright red marker to help with additional studies.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"