Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. IX No. 4 - October 2000

Cape Cod Stranding Network, Inc. -
Rescuing Marine Mammals Around the Clock

By Heather Rockwell, CSI Representative

Atlantic white-sided dolphin

An Atlantic white-sided dolphin - one of the most commonly stranded marine mammals on Cape Cod.
(William Rossiter)

Marine mammals have been stranding along beaches and shores around the world for centuries. Here in New England where Cetacean Society International is based, strandings of cetaceans is a common event. In particular, the coastline of Cape Cod, Massachusetts is noteworthy for the high level of live and mass strandings of marine mammals that occur there. As recently as the 1950's, people were still utilizing the oil and meat from stranded marine mammals found on the beaches of Cape Cod. Today, the attitude towards marine mammals has changed and people now rush to the scene of a stranding with the intent of helping the animals in distress.

On Cape Cod, a network of volunteers formed that responded to calls to rescue stranded whales and dolphins. The need for a constant presence to handle the numerous stranding situations in the region was apparent. Finally, in the fall of 1998, the Cape Cod Stranding Network, Inc. (CCSN) was formally incorporated with a mission "to provide humane care, management and full scientific investigation of marine mammals in this region." The CCSN strives to fulfill its mission by focusing on several goals, which include rapid response to all stranding events, effective and progressive medical treatment, cutting edge protocols, full scientific investigation of live and dead animals, and conservation through education and outreach to volunteers and local communities.

Today, the CCSN is run by a full-time Program Director and Stranding Coordinator, who are on call 24 hours a day to respond to marine mammal strandings. A core group of trained volunteers is always on standby to assist the staff when called upon. Equipment like dry suits, stretchers, flatbed trailers and inflatable boats are all a part of the CCSN's response efforts. After arriving on the scene of a stranding, the CCSN assesses the situation and decides what is best for the animals: should the animals be rescued, should they be returned to the water, should they be relocated to another site and then released, should they be relocated to a rehabilitation facility for treatment, or should they be euthanized.

During the past year, the CCSN received over 350 reports of stranded marine mammals. While 249 of these reports did not involve any direct action, the remaining 138 stranding events required an immediate response by the CCSN. Atlantic white-sided and Common dolphins and Pilot whales are the most commonly stranded cetaceans in New England. The CCSN also responds to seal strandings, including resident populations of harbor and gray seals. However, in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of Harp and Hooded seals stranding on Cape Cod, where normally they are found much further north on the ice off Canada and the Arctic.

Most recently, the CCSN was on hand for a mass stranding of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. This is what happened. On Saturday, August 26th, I received a phone call at 6:45 a.m. from Katie Touhey, Program Director of the Cape Cod Stranding Network. She was calling to alert me to a stranding situation involving 30 Atlantic white-sided dolphins in Herring River in Wellfleet, MA. She was going to need people to assist her with the rescue of these animals, so I immediately alerted members of the core CCSN volunteer response team. Most of us were on the scene to help Katie and the dolphins by 8:30 a.m.

Herring River is an area known for high incidences of strandings due to its topography and low level of water at low tide. Dolphins swim up river at high tide, but become confused and trapped as the tide ebbs. This particular group of dolphins had been seen feeding and swimming in Herring River the previous evening. Overnight, eleven animals stranded and died during the low tide cycle. Now, on Saturday morning, we were faced with the very real possibility of the remaining dolphins stranding as the tide receded. A decision was made to try to herd the animals back out of Herring River and into the open waters of Cape Cod Bay. Boats were launched and by 10:00 a.m., the dolphin rescue mission was underway.

CCSN staff in boat

CCSN staff and volunteers in one of the boats used to herd the dolphins out into Cape Cod Bay.
(International Wildlife Coalition)

I was lucky enough to be in the lead boat used to herd the dolphins. We tried several times unsuccessfully to keep the dolphins together and swimming out of the river towards deeper water. Unfortunately, they consistently became confused and would turn back into shallower water. Finally, a plan was formulated to use "pingers" to keep the dolphins on track to open water.

Pingers are acoustic deterrent devices that emit a high frequency acoustic signal when placed in the water. The signal is offensive to cetaceans and they will swim away from it. Pingers were first used to keep marine mammals out of fishing gear. The boats drove behind the animals and the pingers were lowered into the water. Slowly, but surely, the dolphins began swimming out of Herring River and into deeper water. By 12:30 p.m., the entire group of dolphins was safely swimming offshore into Cape Cod Bay.

Overall, this was a successful summer rescue for the CCSN. Eleven animals died during the stranding, but twenty dolphins were safely herded out to sea. The cooperative effort between all the various agencies involved in the response was tremendous. Hopefully, future rescue efforts will be as quick and beneficial for the marine mammals in need of help.

You can help the CCSN by volunteering for stranding training, donating equipment or supporting their efforts through funding. The Cape Cod Stranding Network, Inc. can be reached at P.O. Box 287, Buzzards Bay, MA 02532, phone 508-743-9805, website http://www.capecodstranding.net. To report a marine mammal in distress in the Cape Cod area, please call the CCSN Hotline at 508-743-9548.

Attending to a stranded Striped Dolphin

CCSN Stranding Coordinator Liz Pomfret (left) and CCSN Program Director Katie Touhey (right) attending to a stranded Striped Dolphin.
(International Wildlife Coalition)

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