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Unprecedented Dolphin Strandings Wear Rescuers Thin

Rescue workers mark dead beached dolphins to distinguish them from one another. (Adam Ragusea/WBUR)

Rescue workers mark dead beached dolphins to distinguish them from one another. (Adam Ragusea/WBUR)

Scientists continue to be baffled by the unprecedented number of dolphin standings occurring along Cape Cod Bay. One hundred and sixty beached animals have been counted since the mass-stranding began on Jan. 12. That’s way above the annual average of 38 — and it’s only February.

Rescuers on Cape Cod have managed to save dozens of dolphins. But as this episode drags on, their resources are wearing thin.

‘This Is An Outrageous Number’

Everything about Wellfleet harbormaster Mike Flanagan screams longtime Cape Codder: his wind-worn features, his mental map of the harbor floor, and his rather unromantic views on the activity of saving dolphins.

“Well it beats the alternative,” Flanagan says, “pickin’ them off the beach is not an easy thing to do.”

Wednesday morning, Flanagan is about a mile off Wellfleet, gently nudging three dolphins toward deeper water, using the vibrations of his boat to guide them through a labyrinth of points and shallow inlets. He calls this place a “fish trap.”

“The dolphins come swimming down from the north,” he explains. “Once they get up in the harbor and the tide goes out on them, there’s no place for them to go.”

From a rubber zodiac boat to Flanagan’s port side, Katie Moore directs the rescue operation. She’s the manager of marine mammal rescue and research for IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare. IFAW has gotten a lot of press recently for dramatic and daring rescues of beached dolphins, but in between comes the long, tedious work of stranding-prevention — endlessly monitoring the shoreline and chasing away animals that get too close.

As she climbs back on the dock in Wellfleet Harbor, Moore’s drawn, pink face pokes out from under a salt-stained hoodie. Her eyes bug with the weary yet intense look of someone running on coffee and little else. She and her team of five other rescuers and researchers have been doing this 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for almost a month.

“We know that we’ve had mass-strandings here on the Cape for hundreds of years, pre-dating the industrialized ocean that we’ve created in terms of noise and things like that,” Moore says. “But this is an outrageous number of animals to be coming in.”

IFAW has only been keeping records of dolphin strandings on the Cape since 1999. For all they know, this kind of thing is normal every 10 or 20 years. Earlier this week a Cape Cod Times columnist dismissed the rescue efforts as “monkeying with evolution.” Moore answers that in a couple of ways:

“One, certainly, is that as humans we have some affinity for marine mammal species, and people want you to save them. If we’re not out here doing it, you know, we’ve had instances where the general public has put themselves in harm’s way to try and help individual animals.”

Moore also argues that, even if these strandings turn out to be natural, humans have so disrupted the ocean environment — and presumably killed dolphins elsewhere — that we might as well save these animals because we can.

“The other piece of it for us is also the science,” Moore adds. “This is an opportunity to learn about species that are very very difficult to study.”

‘There Must Be A Question We’re Not Asking’

Indian Neck Beach in Wellfleet is littered with dead dolphins. It’s pretty grim. Their skin is so smooth and shiny, they look fake — like pool toys left in the sand. They have yellow marking on their side, indicating that IFAW has already examined them.

It’s Wednesday afternoon, and IFAW is on the beach again because a volunteer spotted three live dolphins swimming too close to shore, and the tide is on its way out. The trio is, in fact, the same group from the morning. They didn’t make it far before getting into trouble again.

Moore is unfazed by this discouraging development. “I’m on autopilot and have been for awhile now, I think.”

The Sisyphean nature of her daily struggle doesn’t bother Moore as much as the uncertainty of it all. Every day a dozen people ask her, “What is going on here?” On Day 28, she’s no closer to an answer than on Day 1.

“I feel like there must be a question we’re not asking,” she says. Moore offers possible explanations: “We know that the hook shape of the Cape is a big part of it, and these gently sloping beaches with the extreme tides. Part of it is the social nature of the animals, sticking together in groups.”

But none of that’s new. What’s different about this year? Disease? Warm weather? Secret military sonar? Moore says the Navy denies that last one. IFAW is collecting data that could point toward the answer but they literally can’t stop saving dolphins long enough to analyze any of it.

“So when does it end?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Moore says. “Every day we say, maybe this is the last day, maybe this is it. But amazingly this one just keeps going, so I honestly don’t know and I’m frightened at the prospect of not knowing.”

Moore radios to her team out on the zodiac. They’re trying again to lure the dolphins into deeper water. Moore is concerned they’re losing light, because IFAW’s boats aren’t outfitted for nighttime navigation. The dolphins are hardly out of danger, but they have to pack it in.

“There’s not a lot more we can do,” she says.

‘Two Alive, Three Dead’

The next day is a rare quiet one. Some IFAW staff catch up on paperwork at the office, others head out to patrol the shoreline, and then, a phone call. As the sun goes down, I meet Moore and some members of her team on Sandy Point Beach in Barnstable.

In the back of a specially outfitted truck, two dolphins lay side-by-side, breathing audibly.

“We had five animals reported back here in the marsh at Sandy Neck,” Moore says, “two alive, three dead.”

A few miles west, the dolphins are wheeled off a beach near the Cape Cod Canal. Figures in dry-suits wade into the inky black. They take the dolphins to chest-level water, and let them go.

“Success?” I ask.

“Uh, for the moment,” Moore says. “The animals don’t have the best shot. It was the best we could do, probably, for tonight. We prefer to put ‘em on the Outer Cape.”

As Moore climbs back up the beach, she still has several hours of work ahead of her — tearing down the truck for the night and processing samples. In the morning, she’ll be at it again.

This weekend some people from the stranding network in New York are coming up to provide a couple days relief for her staff.

It won’t be a moment too soon.

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  • David

    There’s lots of unanswered questions. There are also some answers:


  • Susan

    Very well reported story. Very good example of the nitty gritty work of science. Thank you. Great sound!

    • http://twitter.com/aragusea Adam Ragusea

      Thanks Susan. This strikes me as a lesson in what a strong news organization buys you — I was able to stay down there an extra day just to wait for a chance to get that breathing sound. That’s what we mean when we say “listener supported.”

  • Cate

    Why is it that no one, especially the scientist involved, have even spoken about ‘Operation Bold Alligator’ which ‘coincidentally’ began in the atlantic ocean on the east coast of the us from VA to florida on Jan 12, 2012 and will end tomorrow,  Feb. 11, 2012, and i predict that the ‘mysterious’ dolphin beaching will end with it. There are bunches of ships probably submarines involved and they are pinging and sonaring the east coast waters like a percolator. How come I can find this out, or are the scientists not allowed to bring it up? A little common scense please…


    • http://twitter.com/aragusea Adam Ragusea

      Bold Alligator actually began Jan. 30. It nonetheless strikes me a something to consider. I’ll ask around.

    • David

      Sonar injured dolphins lost their sense of direction and would thus swim with the flow of the surface currents, downstream in the path of least resistance. The naval operations are not downstream from Cape Cod–any dolphins injured by this operation will be carried out to sea and away for public’s eye. The Navy knows where to operate so the dying dolphins don’t swim to popular beaches.

      The cause of the stranding is likely a mapping sonar or a side-scan sonar operating upstream from Cape Cod.  Maybe in the Gulf of Maine or the area around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

      The following links will show some of sonars that might be responsible.






      Capt. David Williamshttp://deafwhale.com/seaquake_solution/

      • Brodsky11

        There has been an unusually high amount of sonar 30 miles off of Provincetown. They were looking for the British ship, SS Nicholson. They spanned 150 miles with their sonar. Not sure why people aren’t paying attention to this and all the information above. 

        • http://www.deafwhale.com/seaquake_solution/ David

          This is likely a side scan sonar trying to look deep into the mud. Whether this is indeed the cause depends on the unit in operation. The 1987-1988 bottlenose die-off along the Atlantic coast was caused by GLORIA, a nasty USGS side-scan sonar. Six hundred dolphins washed ashore, another 2,000 washed out to sea and sank.  Search “GLORIA side scan sonar” for more information. Funny thing is that USGS took down their GLORIA site 2 days ago. Hmmm… why would they do that? You can still get the cached files.

          I’ve worked on the mystery of mass stranding for 40 years.  The pattern in the Cape Cod event is positively associated with a moving acoustic source of barotrauma over a period of time. I suspect a borderline situation in which the makers of the unit thing it is dolphin safe.    

          Can you direct me to your information? And, can you continue to look for any other sonar units operating NORTH of Cape Cod. Search as far away as 3,000 miles… a wounded dolphin can swim along with the surface flow for up to a month and could easily cover 125 miles per day. There is so much going on north that the dolphins dying in this event might be coming from 2-3 other sources.

          The die-off might have started a month or two before the dolphins started showing up in Cape Cod. The difference being that, at first, a change in the currents washed the dying animals out to sea. 

        • http://www.facebook.com/mrsmassebeau Kirsten Massebeau

          Can you contact me with any information you have on the search for the SS Nicholson. mrsmassebeau@Gmail.com

      • Selkiegirl1999

        Thank you for this information.  So depressing.

    • Selkiegirl1999

      re: “are the scientists not allowed to bring it up?” – Could it be that they depend on federal funds from the Navy?  Don’t know, just wondering.  I agree w/ the percolator theory and we can only guess what the actual death count is.

      • http://twitter.com/aragusea Adam Ragusea

        IFAW only gets some of their money from federal grants, and they weren’t at all shy about talking about sonar with me. Certainly I sensed some frustration with the fact that they basically have to take the Navy’s word for it, through NOAA. Necropsies may implicate sonar down the road, but they need time to do them.

  • http://wildernessvagabonds.com Mike Lewinski

    Some 260 dead dolphins have been found on beaches in Peru over the last three days, along with “vast quantities” of anchovies.


    • http://www.deafwhale.com/seaquake_solution/ David

      Thanks for the heads up on the dolphins in Peru.  I checked it out and did find that an earthquake near shore was indeed responsible. The quake killed the dolphins and the anchovies they feeding on. This is the first time in 40 years where I have been able to tie an earthquake with the stranding of a family of coastal dolphins.  Again, thanks for the heads up.


  • Scotthorts

    Why no more than 1 picture with this?  It is the internet, not the Pony Express…

    • http://twitter.com/aragusea Adam Ragusea

      Here’s the two dolphins in the truck: https://twitter.com/#!/aragusea/status/167812607284232192/photo/1

      Sorry, I’m a lousy photographer to begin with, plus it’s hard to take pictures while you’re holding two microphones. Further complicating matters was the fact that the Barnstable release happened in pitch black.

  • pstarkey24@gmail.com

    U don’t need pics of dead dolphins. Who wants to see such a tragedy anyway. Just knowing about it makes my heart ach!

  • Selkiegirl1999

    It has to be sonar.  Can’t the scientists in Woods Hole do some autopsies to see if there has been brain bleeding or other damage due to ocean noise (presumably from surfacing too quickly to get away from the noise, or otherwise)?  Are there any other species (seals, whales) stranding/dying as well to be autopsied?  Are submerged wrecks and war games more important than highly intelligent living mammalian species?  The dolphins are telling us something – it’s up to us  to decipher it and end the bad behavior.

    • http://twitter.com/aragusea Adam Ragusea

      It’s a good question. IFAW has brought some of the animals they weren’t able to save back to their HQ in Yarmouth but they say they literally haven’t had time to do the necropsies. The other problem is that many of these answers depend on test results that have to be sent away to outside labs and take weeks to process. The greatest likelihood is this will all be over by the time we know what it was about.

      • Selkiegirl1999

        Thank you.  My guess is it won’t be the last incident, unfortunately.

  • Selkiegirl1999

    Dear Adam,
    Thank you for this.  I was just buying roses through WBUR when I came across it.  Could a follow-up story might be on details regarding possible causes?  It’s enough that we overfish, pollute (e.g., effluvia and noise) and treat the oceans as if they had endless capacity.  But I feel like the press doesn’t cover any of these problems enough.  Please keep reporting on this.

    • http://twitter.com/aragusea Adam Ragusea

      Thanks so much for supporting the station and the work we do. We’ll definitely stay on this one, but I’m also going to take my lead from the scientists. I don’t think the media should be in the business of speculating about things that they wouldn’t put out there.

      • Selkiegirl1999

        I understand and look forward to your ongoing work.

  • Rob NBPT

    A healthy animal would never strand itself like this.  Plain and simple.  Try catching a wild dolphin in the open ocean and putting on the beach or even in your boat.  Impossible. So why is this happening. It must be some external perhaps invisable force e.g. sound sonor or brain disease?

  • Lillme



    Why is there no media coverage of the mass Atlantic coastal Navy exercise???

  • Lillme

    Please Adam help

  • Gymrat0315

    Read this link: http://www.deafwhale.com/seaquake_solution/

    It states on this link that this could all be because of barotrauma.

    Barotrauma in the sinusitis can be a deadly injury for marine mammals because it prevents them from diving and feeding themselves and also disables their biosonar. Said differently, not only are whales and dolphins with barosinusitis unable to dive much deeper than a few meters due to pain, they also loss their sense of direction

  • Love8cats

    What about plates moving in the earth? Strandings are sometimes related to an upcoming natural disaster. I would think it to be possible for a very large earthquake.

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