October 04, 2006

Sag Harbor Marina: A Dolphin Rescue

Sag Harbor Marina hosted two unusual guests, of the finned rather than the masted variety, last week. A pair of offshore bottlenose dolphins, a mother and her calf, were rescued from the marina by The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research Foundation last Thursday, after having spent three days swimming in the area.

The mother, a nine-foot, 630-pound adult, died a few hours later at the Riverhead Foundation's marine mammal hospital. The female calf is being closely monitored by the hospital's veterinary staff. "We're pleased with what we're seeing," said Kim Durham, the Riverhead Foundation's Rescue Program Director in an interview on Friday. "She's swimming in the tank, but it's still day-by-day." On Monday, Durham reported the calf was eating fish and squid, "a good sign," and "swimming very well."

An autopsy conducted on the adult dolphin found it to be in poor body condition, with just one centimeter of blubber; three or four centimeters are the norm, according to Durham. Parasites were also found in its body.

Offshore bottlenose dolphins are larger and darker in color than the more common coastal bottlenoses. "They tend to be further offshore, so we don't have a lot of interactions with them. The ones that we do see are ill or injured," Durham said, adding the pair "definitely should not have been swimming around in Sag Harbor Marina."

After receiving reports of the dolphins' presence in the marina last Thursday, Sag Harbor police cordoned off the area near the East Basin and personnel from the Riverhead Foundation stretched a net across the basin in an effort to capture and remove the two sea mammals, according to Les Black, the Sag Harbor Yacht Club's dockmaster, who witnessed the rescue. Rescue staff "kept swimming and walking in closer and closer to the area where the dolphins were in a corner, where they couldn't escape," he said.

"They're physically wrestling these animals, and it was absolutely amazing," Black added. "These are big, strong animals." The calf was captured in a net and lifted into a waiting transport truck. The mother was captured on a subsequent attempt.

Durham estimated the female calf, named Ariel by the Riverhead Foundation's staff, is between six and 18 months old. It is on antibiotics and is being treated for ulcers, "standard protocol with these guys because often the stress first presents itself in stomach ulcers which can lead to very serious infection," Durham said.

The cost of rehabilitation is estimated at $150,000 according to a press release from The Riverhead Foundation, but Durham said there is no set timetable for when the calf will be released. "It really is going to depend on how she reacts to each step that we take," she explained. "I usually tell people it's like a game of chess, where we make a move and then we see what she makes."

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