Students dive into dolphin rescue mission

A group of UM students worked at the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences and in Key Largo with rough-tooth dolphins that were stranded in Marathon, Fla., on March 2. The Marine Mammal Stranding Team (MMST) was notified on the day of the incident to help the dolphins that were alive in critical condition.

Of the 80 dolphins that came ashore, more than 20 were able to swim away unassisted. Thirty-two dolphins were rescued within the first 72 hours and transported to three rehabilitation sites-Virginia Key, Key Largo and Summerland Key.

“We work with the Marine Animal Rescue Society and Marine Mammal Conservancy,” Kate Fisher, senior 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.”

As many as 13 of the dead dolphins were euthanized the first night by marine veterinarians 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.

Initially, because Navy submarines were near the dolphins, sonar was suspected to have caused the mass stranding. However, this theory was later dismissed.

According to Dr. Farmer, the illness affecting the dolphins may be genetic.

“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 performed necropsies-the equivalent of autopsies-on the dead dolphins, particularly examining their acoustic membranes to find evidence of damage caused by sonar. However, the necropsies revealed no acoustic trauma, and the sonar theory has been ruled out because all animals would have had the same symptoms. which was not the case.

In the meantime, the students worked with the dolphins until they could 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.

The two animals that were being taken care of on Virginia Key were released on April 20. Satellite tags that were put on the animals before release indicated that these animals are back in deep water along northern Florida and remain together.

Seven of the animals that were at the Key Largo facility were released on May 3. The satellite tags on these animals indicate that they traveled towards the Bahamas. Rehab efforts continue for a few dolphins still at the Key Largo facility.

Nicole Knauer contributed to this article.

Megha Garg can be contacted at