Cape Cod Rescuers Confounded by Flood of Stranded Dolphins

The tale begins January 12 when a single dolphin washes up on the Cape Cod shore.

It’s nothing unusual for the Massachusetts cape, whose shallow inlets, rough tides, and curved shape annually trap approximately 120 dolphins from January to April.

But as early as January 23, the dolphin count is creeping up to that number, with the toll resounding at 85. A whopping 30 washed up on January 14 alone, tipping off scientists to think that something unusual may be at play.

“These animals seem to be coming from one large group,” said Katie Moore, manager of the mammal rescue and research team at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a nonprofit group tasked with rescuing dolphins and whales found marooned on Cape Cod shores.  “They’re all of the same species, and aerial views have seen large groups of 400 animals just off the cape.”

Yet one question eludes scientists: why?

Two chief ideas are currently being tossed around to answer that question. Some scientists believe that feeding may be to blame for the high tide of dolphins in Massachusetts, but according to Moore, the empty stomachs found in dolphins that scientists dissected have rebuked that theory.

Instead, a wave of support is growing for a new theory: C.T. Harry, an assistant stranding coordinator for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has proposed that dolphin strandings may be correlated with weather fluctuations. While correlation does not indicate causation, some scientists suggest that this year’s unusually warm New England winter could be a factor in the dolphin dilemma.

For now, as scientists scramble for a solution, volunteers scramble to rescue the dolphins. Though 61 dolphins washed up already dead, killed by injuries from the stranding, rescuers still had their work cut out for them—each marooned dolphin must be rolled onto a stretcher and then carried to a vehicle that drives it to a medical trailer. Here, researchers give dolphins ultrasounds, blood tests, and hearing tests, among other procedures.

The job isn’t your regular nine-to-five; the day is only over when all of the dolphins have been cared for and released.

At the current rate of dolphin stranding, paid scientists and volunteers alike brace themselves for a long season ahead.

Moore reflects as she monitors Cape Cod beaches in Wellfleet, MA:

“It’s just about as intense as I’ve ever experienced.”

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