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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mass Dolphin Strandings

Air Date: Week of

On the outermost arm of Cape Cod there are more mass dolphin strandings reported than anywhere else in the world. Even so, the late January stranding and death of 71 dolphins was one of the largest in decades on the Cape. Living On Earth traveled to Wellfleet, Massachusetts to document the recovery effort and talk with some of the scientists involved in researching the strandings.


CURWOOD: The peninsula that encloses Wellfleet Bay is like a barb on the fishhook of Cape Cod. And for the pods of dolphins that swim in the area it might as well be one. More mass strandings of dolphins have been reported on this part of Cape Cod than anywhere else in the world. Even so, the late January stranding and death of 71 white-sided and common dolphins here was one of the largest in decades. One theory is that the animals were confused by an unusual confluence of very high tides and an intense coastal storm.

(Water sloshing)

CURWOOD: On this cold and windy Saturday afternoon, it seems like most of Wellfleet's 3,000-plus residents are here at the harbor. Some have brought cameras, but most are here to help recover the scores of dolphins that have been stranding since Thursday.

MAN: Maybe one more pull out!

CURWOOD: A motorboat trailing 4 more dolphins pulls up to the boat launch on the pier.

MAN: Okay, now, as many people as we can. And pulling up on that side?...

CURWOOD: It takes eight adults to lift the first dolphin, which weighs around 300 pounds. The dolphin is rolled onto a yellow mat with holes for its pectoral fins, and then loaded onto a flatbed trailer.

MAN: One, two, three, lift! (Sound of mat lifting) One, two, three, lift!

(Sounds of a motor)

MAN: Seen any carcasses other than those two?

MAN 2: Yeah, there was one ...

CURWOOD: Earlier, we went scouting for dolphins with Dennis Murley, a naturalist at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

(Man in the background: "Thank you.")

CURWOOD: He maneuvered his blue pickup into the salt marshes over a tiny wooden bridge onto Lieutenant Island, where many of the first dolphins were found. We drove over bumpy dirt roads that would soon be under water. Dennis slowed down and told me to watch for groups of seagulls together, a good indicator of a stranded dolphin.

MURLEY: They're almost helpless when they come up on the beaches, and one of the first things, not having arms and legs, they can't fend off scavenging birds. And their eyes are a delicacy to the gulls. And you might have an otherwise healthy animal that has lost its vision and has obviously got to be destroyed.

CURWOOD: Up ahead we see a dolphin in the middle of the road, half-buried by the sand.

MURLEY: Here's one of the first animals here. At the time it first stranded, it was still alive. We got out to it a couple hours later and by that time it had died. Thinking is that many of these animals had gone through the previous night's tidal cycle and had actually fought their way off. They might have been struggling for up to 12 hours before anyone noticed them.

(Bird songs and breezes)

CURWOOD: At the wildlife sanctuary, New England Aquarium staff have set up a makeshift morgue. The morgue is tucked back in the woods behind the parking lot. The serenity of bird songs does a poor job of preparing us for the sight.

(Knives being sharpened)

CURWOOD: It feels like we've stumbled on the scene of a massacre. At least a dozen white-sided dolphins are spread out on the grass. All are open. Some look like they've been turned completely inside-out.

EARLY: What I'm doing right now is collecting a number of samples for other scientists and collecting some basic data and information to try and, you know, piece together what might happen over the last couple of days.

CURWOOD: Greg Early is the principal stranding investigator at the New England Aquarium. He and other aquarium workers have been going round the clock for two days since the first dolphins were found, and more animals keep coming in.

(A truck motor, voices)

CURWOOD: Greg Early and his colleagues take bone and organ samples from each dolphin. Some will be analyzed immediately to determine if any of the animals were unusually sick. Other samples will be sent to a tissue bank at the National Institute of Standards in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The bank began just 10 years ago, but Mr. Early and other scientists expect it to become an invaluable resource.

EARLY: Twenty-five, fifty, a hundred years from now, if you want to look back you can look back and see if there are any trends, any changes, things like that. And it turns out there's not such a library of reference materials, so if you have a big die-off of animals or an unusual event of some kind, you have no reference point to start from. So, this is one way to get that sort of reference point.

CURWOOD: More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle observed animals that beached rather frequently, when the fancy takes them, and with no apparent reason. But Greg Early says that this is the way it always looks from the outside. Within a few days, he and his colleagues will have constructed a chronology and map of the stranding, and they will start getting back the results of the blood and tissue tests soon after. Combining all this information, Early says, will provide the investigators with a pretty clear picture of the causes of the stranding. Aristotle would be impressed.

(Bird songs and breezes)

CURWOOD: Our story on the dolphin strandings was written and produced by Jesse Wegman. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.



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