Stranding

By Ben Hobbs, AmeriCorps Year 19

When I received the message from my Individual Placement supervisor at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) stating that 14 dolphins were in danger of stranding in Wellfleet, my heart just about jumped straight out of my chest.  I was feeling so many different emotions that I did not know what to think. I had to drop everything and shoot straight up the Cape to Wellfleet.

AmeriCorps members from all three of our houses, Bourne to Wellfleet, joined local volunteers and IFAW staff in responding to 14 dolphins stranded in Wellfleet. Photo from IFAW.

I was one of the first responders to the scene.  We pulled around the corner of the Herring River Gut in Wellfleet, and I could not believe my eyes.  There were two dolphins already stranded, with twelve others continuously circling around, clearly confused and uncertain of how to escape this near certain death trap.  When I saw how enormous the task we had in front of us was, I reached for my phone and called for my AmeriCorps housemates to come to my aid.  To my amazement, my phone lit up with positive responses within seconds.  All of my housemates, whom I had only known for about a month, were willing to drop everything and help us in this dire situation.

Without the help of my fellow AmeriCorps members, many more dolphins may have fallen in the Gut on that day.  Before their arrival, IFAW staff and I were doing everything we could to get the fourteen dolphins onto  stretcher, out of the thick Wellfleet mud, and up onto the beach, which seemed to be an eternity away.  The dolphins were heavy, slippery, and uncooperative for the most part, making this task even more strenuous. Somehow, the adrenaline took over, and we were able to successfully extract all fourteen dolphins from the watery, muddy, sludge that was the Gut.  Sadly, two of the dolphins appeared panicked likely from stranding, despite our team providing supportive care to each of them.  They thrashed and moaned, making noises that were foreign to me.  As they uncontrollably tossed in the sand, the dolphins continuously cut themselves on the Wellfleet oysters, and other sharp objects that lie scattered on the beach. Subsequently, they both passed, possibly due to the extreme stress of the stranding, as these animals are not used to being on the beach and feeling the pressure of their own body weight, but we may only know after necropsy (animal autopsy) results are finalized.  There is always a possibility that they were already in poor health before stranding.  These gut-wrenching images and sounds are some that I will not soon forget, and I am certain my housemates feel the same way.

Many stranding response events last well into the evening, where the work continues under the lights. Photo from IFAW.

The hours that passed in the Herring River Gut seemed only like fleeting moments. Before I could catch my breath, I was in a response truck on the way to the release point at Herring Cove Beach, in Provincetown.  This, amidst the blur of the entire day, is where the most surreal moment happened.  As I sit here typing, trying to put into words what I felt, I find myself frozen.  There is simply no way for me to describe the feeling one gets when they support a dolphin in the water, letting them acclimate to the ocean water yet again.  The dolphins are, whenever possible, released back to the sea in groups.  When they appear to be comfortable again in their marine setting, they begin to audibly communicate with one another.  Once this communication began to pick-up, and the flukes of the mammals began to pivot upward and downward, it was time to let them go, and watch them swim off together into the starlit sea.  The feeling of joy, accomplishment, and relief rushed over me. We had managed to save twelve of the fourteen dolphins that day, and I consider that to be an immense success.  Were it not for everyone involved, from staff, to volunteers, the public and AmeriCorps members, I am certain we would have lost all fourteen that day.

It takes a full team effort to respond to a stranded marine mammal- our members are trained to join in stranding response by IFAW at the start of their service year. Photo from IFAW.

This happened to be my very first dolphin stranding of the year, and as a kid coming from a limited scientific background, it was a bit overwhelming. Now that I have conquered this first mass stranding, I feel as though I am ready for anything that the great Atlantic can throw at me.

“Were it not for everyone involved, from staff, to volunteers, the public and AmeriCorps members, I am certain we would have lost all fourteen that day.”

I know that I will have my AmeriCorps family by my side every step of the way, which is comforting to say the least.  Never in my wildest dreams did I picture myself saving whales, dolphins, and seals, but now that I have started it is hard to picture myself stopping.  This program has already opened doors for me that I never thought possible, and we are only a couple of months in.  I am forever grateful for this opportunity that both AmeriCorps and IFAW have given to me. I am anxious to see what the rest of this service year has in store for me, and I am eager to keep gaining more knowledge along the way.  This year is going to be one for the books!

Edited by IFAW and AmeriCorps Cape Cod Program Staff