By Jessica Taylor | Correspondent
Visitors and locals alike delight at seeing bottlenose dolphins leaping through the waves and playing in the surf at the beach. A sad sight, though, and one that occurs every year, is when one of these charismatic marine mammals strands, or washes up, on the beach.
The knee-jerk reaction may be to push the stranded dolphin back into the water, but resist: Dolphins and whales will strand when they are not feeling well, so pushing them back into the water could be fatal. In addition, stranded creatures present an opportunity for researchers to learn about them.
Strandings can happen along the oceanside beaches, marshes in the sound and wherever dolphins and whales typically roam. Luckily, the Outer Banks has a coordinated network of local, state and federal organizations along with volunteers trained to respond to strandings, known as the Outer Banks Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Similar local stranding response teams exist along the entire coastline of the United States, since dolphins and whales are protected species under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
If you encounter a live dolphin or whale stranded on the beach, it’s important to notify the stranding response team as soon as possible. On land, these mammals can experience a number of problems they otherwise wouldn’t. Living in the water, dolphins and whales are essentially weightless compared to the force of gravity on land. This force can result in injury to internal organs that would not normally happen in the water. Once on land, dolphins and whales are also subject to the blazing rays of the sun that can sunburn their smooth sensitive skin. The faster that trained responders can get to the animal, the better they can alleviate the land and sun’s effects.
Many strandings occur when a dolphin or whale passes away in the water and washes up onshore. However, such strandings are just as important to report — there’s lots to learn from these animals even after they die.
On the Outer Banks, the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research (OBXCDR) monitors the bottlenose dolphins that populate the area during the summertime. We use a research technique called photo-identification, where we photograph distinctive markings on the dorsal fins to track the individuals over time. Some dolphins have been seen in Roanoke Sound for more than 20 years, including two known as Onion and Fatlip. By collaborating with other dolphin researchers, especially in the Cape Lookout area where these dolphins migrate during the winter, our network shares nearly 30 years worth of sighting information about these dolphins.
Data collection along with what we can glean from a dolphin after it dies give scientists incredible insight into the creatures’ lives, and it helps us understand how to better conserve the species. In 2016, an older well-known dolphin named Moe stranded in the Cape Lookout area of North Carolina. His stranding was reported to the local stranding response team. After completing the necropsy (an animal autopsy), a collaboration between the North Carolina Maritime Museum (NCMM), Jennette’s Pier-North Carolina Aquarium Society and OBXCDR developed a skeletal display of Moe’s body for environmental education. Researchers at the NCMM in Beaufort worked to clean, prepare and reassemble Moe’s skeleton. In February 2019, Moe made his final return to the Outer Banks as a skeletal display at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. To this day, his display remains suspended from the ceiling near the visitor’s desk at the pier house serving as an educational tool to teach people about the lives of bottlenose dolphins.
How you can help:
If you are on the beach this summer, and see a stranded dolphin or whale, here are the stranding response numbers to call:
Currituck, Dare, and Hyde Counties, call the OBX Stranding Response at: 252-455-9654
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, call the CAHA Stranding Response at: 252-216-6892
By reporting a stranding, you are playing an important role in learning more about these amazing marine mammals. The more we know, the better we can protect them, and continue to enjoy watching them frolic in the ocean waves for many summers to come.