Common dolphins in the shallows attracted thousands to the East Hampton, Long Island cove in January, 2007.
Three of the twelve dolphins recovered during the stranding event. The dead were found by NYS DEC officials and Riverhead Foundation rescuers. Here, their bodies are being transferred to the Riverhead facility for necropsy.
By Taffy Lee Williams, Director
Thousands flock to shallow cove in East Hampton
In all of New York State's recorded history, it had never been seen before: a wayward pod of 20 common dolphins got themselves trapped in a shallow East Hampton cove.
The drama began on Saturday, January 13, 2007, when the misguided dolphins appeared in the inlet, an enclosed body of water separated from the ocean by one of the bays flowing out to Long Island Sound in its eastern waters.
Marine and rescue officials, notably the New York State Department of Conservation (NYS DEC), and the Riverhead Foundation for Rescue and Research, were soon on the scene assessing the situation.
At first, the dolphins, although in this rather shallow cove, seemed fit and hearty; hydrophones revealed their noisy chatter as they explored the farthest reaches of the cove.
As word spread, local residents, eager to see the unexpected visitors, flocked to the pier. It didn't take long for the dolphins to become celebrities, and their growing fame spread across the nation. On the following days, national and then international media continually descended upon the pier, using satellite trucks to beam the latest dolphin news out to the world. The major networks, popular magazines, and daily newspapers kept reporters on the scene interviewing officials and concerned onlookers. Nearby schools brought entire classes who were delighted to see the unusual sight of dolphins in that remote Long Island waterway. It would be no exaggeration to say that thousands flocked on the beleaguered shores of East Hampton's Northwest Creek, and the dolphins rewarded their presence with spectacular views as they swam just under foot at the base of the pier. It was a special treat for the public standing nearby to listen to the dolphin chatter over Riverhead's underwater hydrophones, computer-assisted acoustic monitoring devices.
As the people strained to see the dolphins, DEC officers remained watchful, knowing they had to keep the more enthusiastic from entering the water, either with or without a watercraft, to get closer to the dolphins. One event said it all: three days into the event, a trio of unidentified persons set out in a canoe at the inlet entrance, presumably to get close to the dolphins. Immediately, a DEC marine patrol officer took charge. A siren rang out from the pier across the water and the loud speaker blared in an angry voice: "You in the canoe, turn around and exit the cove. Immediately." The warning was sent out three times, and the canoers dutifully and quickly reversed their course and left the water. Approaching marine mammals, which are protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, is a federal offense. Enforcement of these rules were appreciated and certainly worked for the dolphins' protection. And it was easy to see how one might grow to feel protective. The dolphins were close, giving us glimpses of their eyes and sleek bodies. A stripe of soft color at the place where the grey dorsal side met the white underbelly was clearly visible just a few feet away, and showed just how lovely these creatures really are. No one would want to see them harmed.
There was much speculation as to why the dolphins became trapped in the cove. Most likely the dolphins entered the cove at high tide, to clear the narrow inlet, possibly following a prey species like herring. However, common dolphins are free-ranging oceanic cetaceans not usually seen close to the shore. Scientists understand that their very presence at the shore is like an alert that something is wrong. Some believe that the prey species were being chased because the warmer waters brought them in from the open ocean, linking the stranding ultimately to one of the long list of consequences of global warming. Dwindling stocks of fish and an actual loss of "biomass" in the open ocean has been reported in the North Atlantic in recent years. Perhaps hunger drove the pod toward the land in a desperate attempt to feed. Although this does not conclusively prove hunger as a motivation for the stranding, upon initial examination, there were no stomach contents in one of the recovered dead dolphins.
There were other possibilities for the stranding. Illness might have caused one of the pod members to wander and stray into the dangerous shallows, drawing its family along with it. Perhaps something in the open waters, such as an underwater explosion or even the blare of sonar, spooked the dolphins enough to cause them to flee toward the land. Many asked if this stranding connected to the string of mass beachings happening on the southern shores of Cape Cod, where dozens of common dolphins had died in the recent days and weeks. Despite the speculation, no one knew for certain what really caused the dolphins to enter the cove.
Regardless of the reasons, rescuers sprang into action. It took just one day to form a squad made of the experienced team from the Riverhead Foundation, officials from the local offices of NOAA/NMFS, the NYS DEC's marine patrol, East Hampton's marine and fire units, assisted by teams from the New England Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium and up to 80 local volunteers. The rescuers would form a wall of boats launching at the daylight's first high tide to drive the dolphins out of the shallow inlet to their freedom. The first on-the-water-attempt on Sunday morning following the entrapment failed, although cheered on by the hundreds of onlookers. Then the grim reality of the serious situation was driven home as five dolphins were found in the shallows. Four of the dolphins were already dead. The fifth was in such poor condition that it was euthanized rather than transported to Riverhead facility's recovery site.
Efforts to drive the dolphins out of the cove at the early high tide on Monday were fruitless as well. Still the remaining dolphins seemed to show little sign of imminent distress. There was hope that the pod would find their way out of the cove on their own, perhaps after sunset while rescue operations would be impossible.
By Tuesday, however, it was clear the dolphins were not going out by themselves. Their way to freedom was a narrow strip of a sandbar-like inlet about 7 feet wide but only 4 feet deep at high tide. The dolphins simply avoided it. But for the moment, they appeared safe, and we were all enjoying a stretch of unusually mild weather. The determined boat team gathered again at high tide and were rewarded by their persistence: eight of about 20 dolphins in the cove were "herded" back out into the bay adjoining Long Island Sound. They were free! The same day, however, brought a more sobering reality: another dolphin washed up dead.
The biggest concern among onlookers was the lack of food in the cove.
"There are no fish in there!" local residents claimed.
"Why don't they just bring in some food for them?" one frustrated elderly man complained. One woman reportedly threw raw salmon into the cove after hours when no one could see or stop her. To many, the laws against feeding cetaceans in the wild seemed ridiculous in this increasingly dire situation. However, no one knew what the actual physical conditions of the dolphins were, or if feeding them would pose risk. Then again, if wild dolphins become habituated to humans as a source of food their chances of survival in the open water drops considerably.
Conditions deteriorated as winds grew strong and a severe cold settled over the area. The team remained on the pier for five additional days monitoring the pod's activities but rescue attempts would be too dangerous and had to be postponed. On Friday, January 19, three more dead dolphins were found, one adult, one juvenile and a smaller calf, bringing the death toll to nine. One more dead dolphin washed up on Saturday, and two more dolphins were found dead on Sunday, just 8 days after their entrance into the little cove.
Tragically, twelve dolphins perished during this event, but thanks to the dedication and perseverance of the rescue team on the shore, eight were successfully returned to the open sea.
There can be no mistake that cetaceans in the wild are facing many, often huge, obstacles to their survival. As global warming continues to affect the oceans of the world, draining the seas of plankton and other bio mass long-dependent on stable temperatures, the disruption to the complex oceanic food web will become more evident. Was this a case of starving dolphins searching for food in unsually warm waters? Time and necropsy findings may reveal the answers. One thing has been established: the winter of 2006-2007 has been the warmest in recorded history.
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