Stranded: March 2, 2005
Died: April 6, 2005 (injuries consistent with stranding)
On March 2, 2005, I received a phone call from a friend, informing me of a mass stranding of approximately 80 rough-toothed dolphins (Steno bredanensis) in the shallow waters of Marathon, Florida Keys. Not long after, I would find myself on the gulf side, just north of Key Largo, donning a double wetsuit and braving the cool waters where approximately 25 dolphins recovered from their ordeal.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, many of the dolphins were found in flats and sandbars. At low tide, they would have been in water about six inches deep, and tragically, many animals died or were euthanized in the hours that followed.
With their conical heads, narrow rostrums and distinctive teeth which formed irregular wrinkles and ridges, this elusive species intrigued me. I had never seen one in the wild, and likely, as they mostly preferred deep water, they wouldn’t have had many encounters, if any, with humans. A medical pool was set up to isolate and rehabilitate the sickest of the survivors, and, given my experience as a first-line responder, I found myself working with three, such animals: a juvenile, an older female, and another female who was given the identification of “366.”
I spent most of my time “walking” the circumference of the pool on my knees, monitoring (and often, physically supporting) the dolphins. “366” seemed so tired, lethargic in fact, and I was concerned she would be too weak to recover. For hour after hour I alternated between simply being there with her, and wrapping an arm around her as I spoke in soft and gentle tones. Many times she would lean into me and I supported her large frame, keeping vigilant that her blowhole remained above the surface of the water.
When night fell, mosquitos began to land on both the dolphins and me. I knew I needed sleep but didn’t want to leave, for fear they would die during the night. I did eventually check into a hotel somewhere along the Overseas Highway, but dreams kept me awake for much of the evening.
The next morning, “366’s” condition appeared largely unchanged, but stable. The moment I entered the medical pool, the juvenile began to poke my lower back with her rostrum. The older female hovered near the youngster, and “366,” in her quiet and elegant manner, moved her body nearer to mine. With me on my knees once again, we “walked” the pool, over and over.
Given her body language, I believed she trusted me, and knew I was trying to help. But how would I acknowledge this, I wondered? And then it hit me – I would sing to her.” ~ Cara Sands
When I had to leave for home the following day, I was utterly guilt-ridden. While the juvenile seemed to be gaining in strength, “366” was not.
I made arrangements to return two days later and learned “366” would be undergoing physical therapy as it was discovered she had an “S” curvature of the spine, indicative of scoliosis. I learned treatment would begin that day, and was grateful to be there for her. Positioned at her head, my face beside hers, physical therapy graduate students from the University of Miami, under the direction of the Chair of the Department, performed a series of manipulations in attempts to correct her condition. I will never forget these moments. “366” rotated one, large eye towards me, staring directly at me. I felt her fear at being touched so aggressively by so many people and did what came naturally: I began to sing to her. Within seconds, her taut muscles relaxed and I continued singing for her, to her.
I did have to leave again, and this time, I didn’t return. I had planned to, but one day, after being regularly updated on the condition of all the dolphins, I received devastating news: “366,” after taking a breath, submerged, and never again surfaced.
She was gone.
At the end of it all, between two and six months later, a total of nine dolphins were released back into the ocean. Tracking devices were placed on all of the animals and they were tracked for weeks after, with the dolphins last known locations near the Bahamas (seven dolphins) and near Cuba (two dolphins).
While the official cause of the stranding was undetermined, the U.S. Navy confirmed the use of two different types of sonar by the USS Philadelphia, during various military exercises. Training was conducted for several days off the coast of Key West, approximately 35 miles from Marathon, including on the day of the stranding.
“366” taught me more in the brief hours and days I spent with her than any knowledge I could ever hope to absorb from a book, or course. She taught me what it meant to connect with another on a level so profound that words were redundant. As a writer, this realization was doubly impactful. She trusted me, trusted others, literally putting her life in human hands. And although she would not survive this traumatic ordeal, I can only hope she knew in her last moments, how deeply appreciated her acceptance of me was.
Featured image: Wild rough-toothed dolphin