Dolphin that Ida washed ashore making improbable recovery
GULFPORT -- A month ago, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, storm-battered and suffering a series of ailments, lay at death's door on a Gulf Shores beach.
Today, against the odds, the young dolphin that Tropical Storm Ida forced ashore glides around a 30,000-gallon pool and gobbles herring.
"From almost dying to what we have now is a pretty amazing recovery," said Moby Solangi, executive director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies. "Generally they don't survive."
Set upon the southern shore of an inland shipping channel, the institute's year-old Center for Marine Education and Research is where most dolphins and whales - dead or alive - end up if they're stranded along the northern Gulf of Mexico. The $7 million center includes a veterinary clinic, a necropsy lab, a museum and hundreds of thousands of gallons of tank space.
And its most celebrated occupant - no disrespect to the Kemp's Ridley sea turtle that can't stop floating - is the dolphin that's on the mend.
Winding up 150 yards north of the surf on a secluded shoreline is a miserable position for a dolphin to find itself in. But, in a way, Ida's waves saved the life of this young male, which was suffering from pneumonia and parasites and had probably been separated from its companions.
As such, its rescue has become perhaps the most compelling story to emerge from the otherwise uneventful storm, even netting the Gulfport center a turn on NBC's "Today" show.
While the dolphin's recovery seems a suitable ending, scientists will soon be faced with a complex question: Whether the dolphin should be sent back to sea or might be better off in an aquarium.
"It's a very, very difficult decision," Solangi said. "Especially with this animal."
For one, there's the dolphin's youth.
Atlantic bottlenose dolphins need up to four years to mature and largely depend on their mothers until then. Behavior - from fishing to fending off sharks - is learned from older dolphins in its pod, said Shea Eaves, a research assistant at the center.
Scientists believe that this dolphin is about 2 years old. The only way to tell for sure would be to count growth rings in its teeth, and that's not an option if it's alive.
The next best way to estimate its age is to consider its size.
There are formulas to estimate the age of a 191-centimeter and 200-pound dolphin, such as this one. but scientists have to know whether it's a coastal dolphin or a member of the subspecies that lives far offshore.
To that end, Blair Mase, a Miami-based scientist with National Marine Fisheries, who will be involved in the release decision, awaits genetic data that should show this dolphin's place of origin.
Even if deemed old enough to survive without its mother, there are other factors that could keep the dolphin from the sea.
The highly social dolphins depend on one another for food and safety. For the Ida dolphin to survive, it would need to find a pod, if not its own, then another to take up with, Solangi said. And either way, it will likely have to muscle its way into the pod's hierarchy, he said.
"He can't live a solitary life," Solangi said. "He's going to have to find a group of animals that will accept him, and there's going to be a tussle, if he's not well enough, he's going to be eliminated."
The most recent attempt to return a stranded dolphin into the Gulf of Mexico went poorly.
Scientists took that dolphin from the Florida Panhandle to the Tampa area where it had been found beached. They released it into the sea, only to watch sharks attack three hours later.
Eventually the Gulfport scientist will make a recommendation on the Ida dolphin's future to the federal regulators. The government scientists will then bring the case to outside scientists before reaching a decision, Mase said.
"We don't want to put an animal that can't survive into the wild," Mase said, "but at the same time, it is in our mandate to release all animals that we can."
By Ryan Dezember
Even deceased dolphins and whales yield valuable data
GULFPORT - There are many reasons for a two-hour drive to the beaches of Gulf Shores, but retrieving a dolphin corpse would not make many people's lists.
Yet, since taking over the duty of marine mammal coroner along Alabama's coast in late September, scientists with the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies have done so seven times - though in one case the creature was alive and is being rehabilitated.
"People ask us, 'Why do you care for dead animals? Why do you care for helping a stranded animal?" said Moby Solangi, the institute's executive director. "Other then being good stewards, they give us a good window on the health of the environment.
"Marine mammals, especially dolphins, being on top of the food chain, are good biological indicators, like a canary in the mine. What happens to them will eventually happen to us."
The institute has long responded to Alabama live strandings, but only recently took over the duties of responding to dead one from a Baldwin County group that ceased operations this summer, said Shea Eaves, a research assistant with the Gulfport organization.
To better acquaint coastal Alabama's law enforcement, government agencies and waterfront residents with the protocol for stranded dolphins and whales, the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies has scheduled a workshop Jan. 9 at the University of South Alabama. The event, which is slated to last from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., will be at the university's Research and Technology Park at 775 N. University Blvd., Suite 250.
"What we're trying to do is organize the Alabama network so that when anyone who sees something, they can quickly advise us so it doesn't take hours and hours to get to it," Solangi said. "In some cases, the difference between hours and minutes can mean life and death."
A stranded animal can be one that is somewhere it shouldn't be, such as on the beach, stuck in shallow water or otherwise injured or in distress. Dead animals count, too.
Dead animals will often be transported back to Gulfport for research. Sometimes, the scientists will collect samples there, aiming to learn things about the animal, like whether it was contaminated by pollutants, suffered a disease, how old it was and what it ate.
"There's a lot of information we can get, event if the animal is deceased," Solangi said.
For more information on the Jan. 9 meeting, contact Eaves by calling 228-701-1760, by e-mail at email@example.com or online at www.imms.org.
By Ryan Dezember