Monday, June 13, 2011

“Non-Releasable”: The Deadly Saga of Stranded Cetaceans in the United States

On May 5, 2011, a large pod of pilot whales stranded themselves in the Florida Keys.  Several died on the scene.  On May 7, two healthy males were released.  The five remaining animals were transported via grocery semi-trailer to the Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC) in Key Largo.  At the time of this writing, only three of these whales are still alive in the MMC’s rehabilitation pens.  The youngest, known as “301” is about 1-1/2 years old. According to Robert Lingenfelser, MMC director of stranding operations, “If the youngest recovers, she is almost certainly headed for SeaWorld or the Miami Seaquarium because she probably lacks the skills to survive in the ocean.”

The Save Misty the Dolphin (SMTD) team wanted to learn more about what happens to stranded cetaceans in the United States. The SeaWorld Animal Rescue and Rehab website claims that between 600 and 700 bottle-nose dolphins strand in the US every year. Of these, less then 10% survive. Those who live are either released back into the wild or are placed into a marine mammal facility. If an animal is alone or young, it is always held in captivity, for fear of not being able to survive in the wild. Over the years, many marine mammals have been deemed “non-releasable” for these reasons. We wanted to take a close look into the lives of a few of these animals and see exactly how they fared in the hands of humans.  While there are almost countless stranding stories, in the interest of space, we are focusing on four dolphins who stranded as babies and who were taken into captivity.  Their names are Stormy, Lazarus, Nemo and Cayenne.  Here are their stories:


Picture from TMMSN

On September 15 1998, a baby dolphin was found on the beach in Texas. The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network (TMMSN) was called in and found the young dolphin bleeding from wounds received by a shark attack. It was assumed that the 18 month old calf, who was named Stormy, had been separated from his mother during Tropical Storm Frances. Stormy received around-the-clock care in Texas for several months. On March 23, 1999, after being deemed non-releasable due to age, Stormy was transferred to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.  He was placed into a quarantine pool for two months before being moved to the dolphin exhibit on May 12th. Stormy has a huge hit for Mystic.  They installed a “StormyCAM” for the public to watch him and there was even a book written about him, Stormy The Baby Dolphin, A Gulf Coast Rescue.  Stormy was a star!  Yet, in January 2001, less than two years after being transferred to Mystic, Stormy became ill.  He stopped eating and by January 16, 2002, he was dead.  The official cause of death was Staphylococcal Toxemia.  Two months later, one of Stormy's pool mates, Misty a 24 year old dolphin, also died from the same infection.

 "Lazarus" aka "May Day"

On July 19, 2002, an orphaned bottlenose dolphin calf stranded near Ponce Inlet on Florida's east coast. The young calf had been attacked by a shark. The Harbor Branch Marine Mammal Rescue team responded, transporting the young dolphin, who they called Lazarus, over 140 miles south to their stranding facility in Fort Pierce. Lazarus was bottle-fed around the clock for 8 months and nursed back to health.  At that time, he was deemed non-releasable due to age. On August 18, 2003, Lazarus was sent to SeaWorld of Florida, then on to Discovery Cove. He was renamed "May Day", where he performed and took part in the “Swim With Me” program. On April 12, 2005, Lazarus drowned at Discovery Cove after becoming stuck in a drain box. The official cause of death recorded on the Marine Mammal Inventory Report (MMIR) is pulmonary inhalation of water.


Picture by SMSea

On May 15, 2003, two dolphins, a mother and calf, washed ashore on Ossabaw Island, Georgia. The mother dolphin did not survive.  Her male calf was taken to Gulf World in Florida for care. The calf, named Nemo, was less then two months old, weighing in at only 45 pounds and 3-1/2 feet long.  Nemo was bottle-fed around the clock.  Medical tests reported that the calf had an infection.  He was treated with antibiotics. Admitting that the survival rates for stranded dolphins are low, facility staff gave him a 50/50 chance to live.  With the help and treatment he received, Nemo did survive. He was deemed non-releasable due to age, and on February 9, 2004, Nemo became a permanent resident of Gulf World, joining the rest of the dolphins at the facility.  A little over a month later, on March 21, 2004, Nemo died. Gulf World's MMIR was never updated, and the cause of death is still “Pathology Pending”. However, according to a March 25, 2004 news article by the Associated Press, the cause of Nemo's death could have been Red Tide. The article stated that the area had seen numerous wild dolphin deaths in the area due to red tide and two young dolphins, Ripley and Nemo, has just died from what appeared to be Red Tide.  Both were to have shown signs of neurological issues, including twitching of the body.  The article further stated that there were two other dolphins at the facility who were sick.


Picture from IMMS

On March 3, 2004, a dolphin calf was found in DuLarge, LA, where she had been separated from her mother following the construction of a levee. Residents had spotted the young calf swimming around for several days, but did not call for aid until she had beached herself. It is not known how long she had been beached when staff from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas from New Orleans arrived.  She was taken back to their facility for treatment, and was moved to the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) on April 14, 2004. Deemed non-releasable due to her age, Cayenne was then moved to Marine Life Oceanarium, which was owned by IMMS Director Moby Solangi. On Aug. 28, 2005, with a category 5 hurricane heading straight towards them, Solangi ordered four of Marine Life's dolphins to be moved 6 miles inland to local hotel salt water swimming pools. Cayenne was among those dolphins moved. The next day Hurricane Katrina tore through Gulfport, destroying Marine Life. Cayenne was moved to Gulfarium in Florida, along with the other Marine Life dolphins. On Oct 9, 2005, just months after the storm, Cayenne died. According to the MMIR for Gulfarium, Cayenne died of "Presumed Pneumonia". Cayenne was about 2 years old, and lived in captivity for approximately one year and a half.

At Save Misty the Dolphin, we believe that when a decision is made to place a stranded mammal into captivity, the guidelines “first do no harm” must be observed.  Time and time again we have seen rescued dolphins survive being stranded only to die at the hands of their captives.  Placing wild animals in captivity and forcing them live in unnatural conditions is NOT acceptable.  Placing them in disease ridden or unsafe public displays is NOT acceptable.  Forcing them to entertain the public, as if they "owe" it to their human rescuers, is NOT acceptable!

The SMTD team is very concerned about the future of baby pilot whale 301. She, like so many others before her, appears to be sentenced to captivity. While we may not be able to save her, we believe that better regulations must be put into place to help save other young dolphins and whales who become stranded. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) regulates policies and programs associated with stranded marine mammals.  As written, the law allows for the present scenario in which "non-releasable" animals are sentenced to captivity.  

There must be alternatives! Why must the price for being saved be their freedom? Why not have ample bay or sea pens set up for these non-releasable animals? This should be a place where they do not have to perform stupid tricks, and where they can live a somewhat normal life as they are rehabilitated with the singular goal of being released.  Why not help them build new pods and then release those pods in time?  Captive facilities claim that the dolphins in their facilities are bonded like pods in the wild.  If that is the case, why would it not be the same for stranded animals? And, considering that it is okay for Lolita, the captive orca at Miami Seaqurium to be housed with dolphins, then it shouldn't matter if a pod is comprised of different types of dolphins. If a facility or government agency claims otherwise, then maybe they should look at the regulations they themselves put into place.  

Of course, releasing stranded dolphins and whales doesn’t bring revenue into captive facilities.  In 2009, SeaWorld’s combined properties hosted approximately 23.5 million guests.  Revenue reports from 2006 show a net of $144.3 million.  It seems as though there should be funds available for rescue, rehabilitation and release of these stranded dolphins, but when it comes right down to it, profits always seem to take priority over “first do no harm”.


SeaWorld Fl MMIR 2010  MayDay is listed as SWF-TT-0307, on pg 56


  1. Thank you for telling these sad stories of "unreleasable dolphins"... Rehabilitative programs with focus on acclimation to release at sea are obviously more conducive to life and wellness of injured sea mammals than keeping them in captivity. You are right. This is not about their safety and concern... The continued saga reeks of monetary focus, and not on the welfare of these animals.

  2. Unfortunately until the public demand for interaction with dolphins and whales is changed the profit will always be the underlying factor. The welfare of the animals will always be second to greed.

  3. There's also documentation that immature whales released get harassed by sharks and die. They also have difficulty finding food as it takes ten years to wean from their mothers. They also re- strand. Not saying that captivity is good but what do we do? Do we let them die ....or do we take this opportunity to learn what we can.

  4. Kathy, we would love to see the documentation that it takes ten years for pilot whales to wean. We have proposed rescue, rehab and release. From everything we know about the mortality rate associated with captivity for these stranded animals, we feel strongly that rescue, rehab and release is the only humane way to go. Using sea pens or bay pens and helping them build new social networks with other stranded animals will prepare them for a safe release into the open sea - which is the only place that marine mammals belong.

  5. “We do not need to reflect too long before we realize that all beings spontaneously look for happiness and try to avoid suffering.” – Dalai Lama

    “We need to develop a sense of equanimity towards all living beings, expressed through the ability to relate to all others equally.” – Dalai Lama

  6. May Day died at Sea World, not Discovery Cove...get your facts correct if you want to sound legit.

    1. Also, he never took part in any interactive swims...Discovery Cove was simply a home for him before he was moved back to Sea World. Again, get your facts correct.

    2. While you are correct about him not being used for swim-with shows, he did die at Discovery Cove.