Every so often, a dolphin or whale strands along the Texas Gulf Coast. Usually, the animal dies shortly after stranding, and the carcass is collected and necropsied, a critical way to collect data on the health of the Gulf. But sometimes the animals are still alive, and the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network is alerted.
Few people who claim to be animal lovers take the big step of volunteering. But I urge you to do so, if only because of the memories you’ll make.
As a TMMSN volunteer, I experienced incredible highs — seeing a dolphin released back to the ocean, healthy — and gut-wrenching lows — watching a dolphin bleed to death while having a seizure.
Every day, I think of these animals.
First was Xeno, a large old bottlenose male. He was under our care for several months my senior year of high school. He was released back into the Gulf of Mexico. Then Corky, another bottlenose male, who stranded in ’02, after I had moved back to Texas after college. Corky died a rather violent death, a memory that still hurts.
For both, I learned how to record their respirations, monitor their behavior, and feed them (their meals come frozen, and volunteers have to inject the bellies of mackerel with warm water, and stuff pills into the gills — a dirty, grim, smelly task. But sorta fun, too.)
The photo is of Noah, a rough-toothed dolphin, a species less common among shallow near-shore waters. I lived in New York when he stranded, but I was lucky enough to meet him on a trip home. He was fond of those weird floaty noodle things. All rescued dolphins have their own quirks that set them apart — an affinity for a toy, for example — and then they have things in common — slapping the water’s surface with their tail when asserting themselves.
For me, the hardest behavior to endure is when they vocalize — an attempt to communicate with other dolphins — into the void of the small tank they are temporarily kept in.
A friend once asked me “Why do you save them? Aren’t they stranding because they are sick?”
On one hand, I agree, it is excessive to try and help a sick or injured marine mammal. They beach because they can no longer surface for air. Like us, they die. The beach rescuers take this into account, and do not move an animal that is likely to die soon.
But, sometimes, they can be healed, and when they can, the volunteers have not only saved a life, they have amassed reams of research for marine science.
And, besides, it just feels like the right thing to do.