A group of UM students is working on-site at the Rosenstiel School of Marine Science with the rough-tooth dolphins that were stranded in Marathon, Fla. on March 2. The Marine Mammal Stranding Team (MMST) was notified on the first day of the incident to help the dolphins that are alive but in critical condition. Of the 80 dolphins that came ashore, only 15 were able to swim away, and more than 30 have died since.
“We work with the Marine Animal Rescue Society and Marine Mammal Conservancy,” Kate Fisher, junior and treasurer of MMST, said. “We’re in the water with them, keeping them stable and keeping their blowholes above water to breathe.”
For many on the team, this is the biggest stranding they have helped with.
“The first night we got to the site at 1:30 a.m. We stayed with them the whole night,” Daniell Washington, freshman, said. “It was really an inexplicable experience-it was amazing to be able to be there with them.”
Most of the stranded dolphins were females. Two were mothers who struggled and gave birth to stillborns.
As many as 13 of those dead were euthanized by marine doctors who believed the near-death conditions of these dolphins were making them suffer.
Even those who were alive needed physical help.
“They needed to be held up or else they couldn’t breathe,” Dr. Linda Farmer, professor of marine science, said.
One possible reason for the stranding of the dolphins is that active sonar used by U.S. Navy submarines around the Florida Keys that day caused the dolphins to become disoriented. Dolphins and other marine mammals are known to be keenly sensitive to sound waves; they depend on them for communicating and finding mates, among other things.
Another possible explanation is that the health of the dolphins predisposed them to getting lost.
According to Dr. Farmer, this illness may be caused by the genetics of this dolphin population.
“This is the third or fourth time in recent years this happened for this species, the rough-tooth dolphins,” Dr. Farmer said. “It could be weak health.”
Scientists will perform necropsies-the equivalent of autopsies-on the dead dolphins, particularly examining their acoustic membranes to find evidence of damage caused by sonar. They will also collect genetics samples to see if there is a connection among the dolphins that may have caused the stranding.
“We’ll have to wait for the necropsies to know the cause,” Dr. Farmer said.
In the meantime, the students will be working with the dolphins until they can be released.
“We’ve already been down there a week, and we will continue to help them as long as they need us,” Fisher said. “It could be anywhere from weeks to months. Our main goal is release.”
MMST is currently collecting donations for supplies for the dolphin rescue effort.
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