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The Marine Mammal Center Responds to Mass Stranding of Dolphins

In a first in its 38 years of rescue operations, The Marine Mammal Center responded to a pod of seven bottlenose dolphins that became stuck in the mud in a Morro Bay Estuary.

October 15, 2013

CA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife biologist, Mike Harris, keeps an eye on an adult dolphin, part of a pod that swam into a harbor in Morro Bay.
© Lisa Harper Henderson - The Marine Mammal Center

On September 30, 2013, a team of 12 volunteers and staff from The Marine Mammal Center's satellite rescue office in San Luis Obispo, as well as wildlife officials from the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife and Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, came to the rescue of seven bottlenose dolphins (five adults and two calves) that became stuck in the mud in an estuary in Los Osos, Morro Bay, CA.

During the two-day rescue operation, the land and kayak-based teams successfully dislodged the dolphins from thick, black mud. As the tide began to come in, two rescuers in wet suits, California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife biologist, Mike Harris, and Marine Mammal Center volunteer, Jeff Sproul, were able to get the animals to a shallow channel by towing them through the mud. Sand bars blocked the path through the channel, necessitating the constant lifting and hauling of the large dolphins over the obstructions. The team employed various techniques to get the marine mammals back out to sea, including banging on pipes and kayaks, but the dolphins would not leave.

Two of the dolphins were ill and appeared disoriented according to Lisa Harper Henderson, site manager at the Center's San Luis Obispo triage office. “As the two ill dolphins were listing to one side, with their blowholes in the water, the others would swim underneath and absolutely try to upright the two that were sick.”

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As darkeness came, so did the thick fog, blanketing the crew and the dolphins and making visibility nearly impossible. The team had to halt rescue operations for the day.

© Lisa Harper Henderson - The Marine Mammal Center

The next morning, the team returned and spotted five of the dolphins (three adults and two calves) in the bay. With the aid of a Morro Bay Harbor Patrol boat, they were able to prevent the dolphins from returning to the shallows and directed them toward the mouth of the harbor and into the ocean. With those dolphins safely out of danger, the rescuers focused their efforts on searching for the remaining two adults, but they never found them.

This was the largest simultaneous multiple cetacean stranding The Marine Mammal Center has experienced in its 38-year history. In 1999, staff and volunteers rescued two rough toothed dolphins nicknamed Elliot Fitzgerald and Bill Bailey. In May 2007, the Center led a coalition of local, state and governmental entities to rescue Delta and Dawn - a mother and calf pair of humpback whales that swam 75 miles up the Sacramento River. After three weeks of rescue attempts, which included the first-ever attempt at administering antibiotics via a dart gun to free-swimming wild whales, Delta and Dawn swam back under the Golden Gate Bridge.

A BIG round of thanks to the following individuals who contributed to the rescue efforts:

Lisa Harper Henderson
Mike Harris
Greg Frankfurter
Lauren Campbell
Gary Angeles
Jeff Sproul
Peggy Seville
Susan Garman
Mark Garman
Sue Sawade
‘Central Coast Stand up Paddling’
Terry and Darrell Green
Morro Bay Harbor Patrol




Learn about dolphins and humpback whales.

Adopt-a-seal, or in this case, a former dolphin patient named Baker D., and help future marine mammal patients!

Find out more in Science Publications from The Marine Mammal Center


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