The bottlenose dolphins frolicked as only dolphins can. But two listless ones swam the wrong way, and the rest of the loyal pod followed.
Then the tide went out.
That’s what marine mammal experts believe happened recently in a narrow channel of the Morro Bay Estuary, which is not exactly on the dolphin commuter map.
The sight of the stranded cetaceans inspired an unprecedented local rescue effort, featuring compassionate volunteers who slogged through cold goo for hours to free the animals. The rescue occurred Sept. 30, after several hikers saw a group of dolphins flailing around in an estuary mud puddle.
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Two people acted immediately: A newcomer to the area went to the Morro Bay National Estuary Program office, and a hiking tourist called The Marine Mammal Center, which dispatches trained volunteers to rescue stranded marine animals.
Lisa Harper Henderson, TMMC’s manager for San Luis Obispo operations, tells the tale: “The call-out came in at 12:10 p.m. about a mass stranding of dolphins. … That’s common on the East Coast, but quite rare out west.”
She and her volunteers found “five adult dolphins and two calves, quagmired in thick, heavy mud in the Los Osos area of the estuary, far back into the farthest inlet.”
The rescue team ultimately included a Santa Barbara veterinarian who specializes in marine mammals, Marine Mammal Center scientists from Sausalito and lots of San Luis Obispo County volunteers, including Gary Angeles and his two kayaks.
They all hoped that “when the tide came in, we’d be able to get the animals refloated and back out into deeper water,” something usually accomplished by herding the dolphins with boats alongside and behind, with the people aboard making “lots and lots of noise. Dolphins very much don’t like noise.”
Unfortunately, this waterway “was way too small and shallow for any kind of motorized boat,” and the mud was so sticky that “if you put your booted foot in, when you tried to get it out, the boot would stay in the mud.”
Over many hours, marine biologist Mike Harris of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, wearing a wetsuit and booties (his new nickname is “Mudman”), and the rescue team were able to pull the mammals, one by one, out of the goo and into the narrow water channel.
“It was still too shallow for regular boats, so two people on kayaks, two people on paddleboards and two people in wetsuits” acted as dolphin guides, banging on their craft, yelling, and trying to discourage the mammals from going the wrong way again.
Two dolphins were clearly ill and disoriented, Harper Henderson said. “Their behavior was abnormal, definitely not right.”
The other dolphins were amazingly supportive.
“As the two ill dolphins were listing to one side, with their blowholes in the water, the others would swim underneath and absolutely try to upright the two that were sick.”
She said she’d never seen anything like that in her more than 11 years of marine mammal work.
By dark, the animals were able to move freely in the still-shallow bay waters. The team kept working, trying to get the dolphins into deeper water, but when the “very, very thick fog came in, we couldn’t see the dolphins or the people.”
The volunteers regrouped and plotted the odds for the next day.
“The vets thought the dolphins would re-strand, and we’d find them back where they started.”
Before first light the next morning, the team hiked out to where the animals had been seen originally.
No dolphins. Not there or anywhere along the rescue route.
“For a couple of hours, we did a full search of the bay” and “finally, finally sighted five of theanimals, three adults and the two calves.”
This time, when the dolphins headed the wrong way (perhaps back to where they thought the other two were waiting), the rescue team was ready with small Harbor Patrol boats and lots of noise.
Slowly, surely, the team herded the five mammals from the bay into the deeper channel and then to the open ocean.
There was no trace of the other two. The assumption was that they had died, but volunteers thought it extremely odd that neither the ill dolphins nor their carcasses were found.
The moral of the story?
If you see stranded marine mammals, call the Marine Mammal Center’s Morro Bay office at 771-8300. You’ll be notifying people who act quickly: Highly-trained volunteer angels in boats, boots and wetsuits go the extra mile every single time … even when that mile is waist deep in mud.
The Marine Mammal Center
Since 1975, The Marine Mammal Center, headquartered in Sausalito and with field centers in Mendocino, Monterey and San Luis Obispo, has rescued and treated more than 18,000 marine mammals along 600 miles of California coast. They include elephant seals, sea lions, whales, sea otters, harbor seals, fur seals, dolphins, harbor porpoises and more, many of which are threatened and endangered species.
In 2005, the center’s San Luis Obispo program opened a rescue and triage center at 1385 Main St. in Morro Bay. That center operates with one staff member and more than 100 local volunteers.
For information about the Marine Mammal Center, visit www.tmmc.org. For details on what to do if you see a stranded mammal, search the website for “seven steps.”
To reach the Marine Mammal Center in Morro Bay, call 771-8300.