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Marine life rescuers prepare for a busy winter with unique new dolphin rescue truck

dolphin dummy.JPG
Eve Zuckoff
This common dolphin dummy is used to for IFAW demonstrations.

Every winter, dozens of whales, seals, and dolphins are stranded on beaches all around the Cape, but as the busy season approaches, a Yarmouth-based group is relying on a new rescue tool: a custom-built dolphin transport truck.

Sarah Sharp, a veterinarian with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the truck they call Moby — “because it’s big and white and transports whales and dolphins” — is outfitted with soft foam mats and a mini-clinic to treat animals with shock, cramps and other conditions.

“Usually it's bustling kind of quietly with people moving around, getting bloods, getting fluid lines going, getting treatments for the animals, and making sure that they're supported properly,” she said. “We want them to be lying on their bellies so they can breathe easier. [We also make] sure that their eyes are clear so they can see. That reduces their stress.”

dolphin truck.JPG
Eve Zuckoff
The inside of Moby is outfitted with soft foam mats that are easily cleaned so the dolphins can rest more comfortably while on land. As marine mammals, dolphins can survive for several hours out of water.

Since last winter, Moby has already helped transport 80 stranded dolphins from beaches across the Cape to a release point in Provincetown.

To ensure they’re administering the best treatment, the team also uses a diagnostic ultrasound.

“Oftentimes, pneumonia is one of the common things. If animals are sick, it will be a common presentation and so we can do a quick ultrasound on that, make sure these animals are not suffering from a preexisting condition like pneumonia, and then we give them treatment," Sharp said.

Even still, the treatments draw a variety of responses.

“Individual dolphins will behave and react very differently depending on their stress or their shock level, but also just the individual differences in these animals,” Sharp said. “So sometimes they're very calm [and] it can actually be pretty quiet and the animals don't really move very much. They might flutter their tails just a little bit. But other times we have animals that really do thrash quite a bit.”

For those that do seem more agitated, the team developed a system that allows them to fold the foam mats into tents that 200-pound dolphins can rest inside.

“It works really well to keep them safe and to keep our responders safe, because even a 200-pound dolphin can do a lot of damage with their tail. They're extraordinarily powerful,” she said.

“Basically, they're used to living in a dark underwater environment. So [the tent] actually simulates that for them and creates kind of a calm little area where they're off by themselves. And so that seems to be the best way to manage those animals that maybe are more stressed and aren't handling the stranding quite as well.”

Sharp said during the transport about 30 percent of the dolphins will vocalize — calling out to one another as rescuers work on them.

“Oftentimes, you'll see that with mom and calf pairs,” Sharp said. “You tend to have them vocalizing a lot more. So when we can, we obviously put those next to each other.”

dolphin tag.JPG
Eve Zuckoff
IFAW rescuers attach a satellite tag to the back of some dolphins' dorsal fin. It's designed to fall off after three or four months.

The team primarily gets calls about stranded common, Atlantic white side, and bottlenose dolphins. Many are satellite tagged before they’re released so the researchers can ensure they’re properly selecting the dolphins that will survive the stranding event.

On average, IFAW works to help 264 stranded dolphins and seals each year.

“This past year, we had nine dolphins in [the truck] at one time. So … we're able to basically make this whole thing one giant mat and we're able to get nine of them in here. So it really tested our capacity of our pretty new vehicle, which we were thrilled at,” Sharp said.

Before Moby, the team used a converted landscaping truck that transported around 400-500 dolphins. The team says that vehicle rescued more dolphins than any vehicle in the world.

“In the past we've used trailers and we've just kind of cobbled together trying to get nine dolphins from Wellfleet to Provincetown,” she said. “And Moby made that so much easier and better on the dolphins so we could get them there faster.”

Information on how to report a stranding can be found at Rescuers can also be reached by phone at 508-743-9548.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.