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Whale Hugging

May 15, 2011

If you are wondering what a dolphin’s skin feels like, the answer is wet latex.  And no, the air from a whale’s blowhole doesn’t smell like anything.

My first experience with marine mammal rescue was in 2006, when a lone male bottlenose dolphin tried to beach itself across from the airport in Key West. I was working at the local wildlife rescue, and was the first responder on the scene.  I marched into the water, fully dressed, and grabbed hold of the 7-foot wild animal hoping to keep its blowhole above water.  *

Being eye to eye and skin-on-skin with a wild dolphin was an adrenaline rush:  I knew that this was a very intelligent being–and also one that could easily do some serious damage.  Luckily, he was docile, and I stayed with him until the Marine Mammal Rescue Team arrived in their fancy wetsuits with their waterproof headsets and I got out to get interviewed by the local paper. Then, I called everyone I’d ever met to tell them what had just happened.  Later, the dolphin died: his necropsy revealed brain parasites.

On Thursday May 5, 2011, a pod of pilot whales–deep sea cetaceans– stranded of Cudjoe Key.  Of the 18 recovered, 11 died. In the days that followed, 2 males were successfully released into deep water while the Marine Mammal Conservancy cared for 5 animals in the tranquil lagoon at the end of Blimp Road.

I was one of hundreds of people who volunteered with these animals.  The five pilot whales–two calves, two females, and a very sick male–needed to be held around the clock for four days until they were well enough to transfer to the Marine Mammal Conservancy’s facility  in Key Largo.  I only spent a little over 8 hours with the animals, while several members of MMC were on the site 24-7 for days at a time.  Amazingly, there was NO PAID STAFF in the lagoon–everyone who helped– from veterinarians to boat captains to people who held the whales to those who provided food and water–were volunteers!

Marine mammal strandings are mysterious. According to Scientific American, strandings are reported in ancient Greece as well as pilgrim New England, proving they are not a recent phenomena. Apparently, a sick or injured whale will seek  shallow water where it can rest on the ground while keeping its blowhole above water. If the animal is high in the pod’s hierarchy (usually matriarchal females) the rest of the pod might follow.  Underwater earthquakes, magnetic fields, underwater sonar, and red tides, or noise disrupting whales’  echolocation are other possible reasons these animals might strand.

The rescuer’s main job is to keep the animal’s blow hole above water: let it breathe and keep it from aspirating sea water. An animal securely held cannot do further damage to itself thrashing around on the seafloor or in the mangroves.  The skin should be kept moist by “wetting, not petting:”  you have to  run water over the whales’ skin so it doesn’t dry out or sunburn, but if you rub with your hands its delicate skin can rub off.  In the case of the pilot whales, two to four volunteers at a time  supported the animal 24-7 while vets and MMC staff performed tests, administered fluids, and gavaged food.

Wild marine mammal rehabilitation is tricky. These are exceedingly large animals which generally require vast expanses of ocean in order to thrive. Rehabilitation methods can be fraught with controversy among people passionate about marine mammals. Some feel strongly that a whale or dolphin which cannot be returned to the wild should never be forced to live in human captivity, while others believe euthanizing an intelligent marine mammal, no matter how ill or injured, is simply unacceptable.

If you are wondering what a dolphin’s skin feels like, the answer is wet latex. And no, the air from a whale’s blowhole doesn’t smell like anything. I’m told an unpleasant-smelling blowhole can indicate illness.  On my first night with the pilot whales, the two calves were talkative, emitting a constant stream of high-pitched whistles, buzzes and clicks.  I found the sounds heartbreaking, and I had to keep reminding myself that I did not understand their intention, and these weren’t necessarily distress calls.  On the second evening I spent with them, they were much quieter.

Finally, on Tuesday, May 10, the pilot whales were transferred via refrigerated Publix truck to the Key Largo facility where the sickly male was euthanized. The fate of the calves and the two females are still uncertain, and volunteers are still working around the clock to save them. I will probably take the four-hour drive at least once to the facility in the weeks and months that follow–no one knows how long the rehabilitation effort will take or if it will be successful. If you are up for the physical challenge (pilot whales are thousands of pounds and shifts are 4 hours long) and you live near Key Largo, you should consider the amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience of knowing you helped a marine mammal with your own two hands (and legs and back).  Contact the Marine Mammal Conservancy at 305-451-4774.

*I  completed a “Basic Stranding Response and Animal Handling” Workshop with the Florida Keys Marine Mammal Rescue Team.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 22, 2011 11:08 pm

    Great stuff. Xin cam on.

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