Dolphin in a ute

January 8th 2010
Published: January 8th 2010
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Steve in troubleSteve in troubleSteve in trouble

Being protected by the harsh QLD sun
There we were, early in the morning preparing the boat for a day chasing whales (not literally, totally unallowed) for blubber samples around beautiful Stradbroke island. It is one of the chain of sand islands that Fraser Island belongs to. The research boat was parked outside of the lovely wooden chalet Sus hired overlooking the beach and the all female team were doing safety checks when a van pulled up. A guy lent out of the window and said ‘some bloke has just turned up at the police station with a dolphin the back of his ute (truck), you guys better get down there quick’. Someone had found an ill dolphin languishing in the surf and put it in the back of his truck to take it to get help. Now I don’t expect you all to be experts in marine mammal rescue but putting a dolphin in the back of truck is not good for the dolphin, unless it is with a supply of sea water to keep its skin from drying out and support to stop its own weight from crushing its ribs. There was a second when the four of us wondered if we had taken hallucinogenics for
Steve the dolphinSteve the dolphinSteve the dolphin

Getting a lift to the car. As dolphins do.
breakfast and not heard correctly. Not being a local the man had taken it to the police station as he did not know there was a research station a few streets away. As we ran to the research station to tell staff the truck came round the corner. We sprinted over and peered in. Amongst the tools and fishing gear was a young dolphin, lying still. It was up there with watching half a car pulling a plane in the Cook Islands as one of the weirdest things I have ever seen. It looked dead. We all started shouting different instructions at Steve, the poor man who was attempting to save it who was looking very concerned and distressed.

We needed to get it into the water quick. As we tried to get a tarpaulin out the back of the truck to carry the dolphin, Steve picked up the dolphin and carried it down to the beach in his arms. The poor dolphin was not moving and we thought it was too late. We ran down to the beach and watched Steve wade into the shallows. As he placed it in the water it feebly started to move. Sus looked at me as she remembered I had done a marine mammal training course years ago in Plymouth. For once, my memory did not fail me. We cradled the dolphin in the tarp to support it and shade it from the sun, staying away from its fragile and sensitive fins. The fins had blood-sucking parasites attached showing it had a suppressed immune system and had not been moving around much. It could not open its eyes properly and was raw underneath from being stranded in the surf and being in the van. We spoke to it in soft voices, supported its weight and made sure the blowhole stayed above water so it could breath.

In the meantime the class of American undergraduates who had been staying at the research station turned up to have a look. As we cradled the dolphin they came in one at a time to have a look. Many of us had all see dolphins in the wild but even if they come close to your boat you never get this close. I swam with them in New Zealand and even though it was freezing cold when they appeared out of nowhere and looked you in the eye it made me want to cry. This feeling was similarly emotional for all of us. You could feel its heartbeat quicken as it got stressed and the perfect shape of its muscles, although they felt small you knew when it was strong it could get away with one flick of its tail. The students appeared with a large gazebo and stuck it over us and the dolphin. The station manager told us there was new evidence of a bacteria infecting marine mammals so we should not be breathing in air from the blowhole, which we had been doing for the previous hour or so. Now when the dolphin breathed we turned our heads away and shut our eyes.

A local vet turned up, she apologized for taking her time but was working in the fruit shop and could not leave until cover arrived. I wondered again about the mushrooms at breakfast. Researchers came and took photos and measurements. Locals and stray dogs turned up to have a look while others attempted to keep them away so as not to stress the dolphin. After over an hour the Environmental Protection Agency arrived in a boat but they could not do much else as the boat was too small to transport the dolphin. We needed Sea World.
Sea World are an hour and a half away on the Gold Coast. They were attending to the second whale in two days to be caught up in the shark nets and another stranded dolphin so we sat and waited, the dolphin facing out to sea so its echolocation detected water and not land. We splashed water over its shiny but rough grey skin to prevent it from drying out and removed the tarp, supporting it with our hands so it could move freely in the water. It kept rolling onto one side as it had lost its sense of equilibrium and sinking if we let go. Then it called out, clicking and singing, trying to communicate with its mother and its pod. We sat there, blown away by the magic of it all and idly wondering if calls of a distressed young dolphin would attract predators. I moved my hands to see they were covered in what looked like green slimy moss. I was being sh*t on by a dolphin. I am thinking of getting a t-shirt made. We later found out this was bile as the dolphin was so malnourished. Doesn’t have the same ring to it though.

After over 2 hours in the shade we were starting to get really cold so others took over while Courtney (the Phd student doing the whale blubber research) and I put on the only 2 wetsuits we could find. Sea World were attending to the other stranded dolphin so we needed to move the dolphin indoors. Using a sling and wet towels we carried the dolphin up the beach to a 4WD and steadily raised him in. At the research station, a tank was hurriedly filled using a hose and buckets as the dolphin thrashed around, not enough water to support its weight. A local Aboriginal elder came in and blessed the dolphin as they are sacred to them. She crossed its head with her thumb and spoke in an unfamiliar language. The dolphin, normally stressed when people were near its face lay calmly as she touched its head and fins. We thought this was very magical until her granddaughters came in and they started arguing about what the indigenious name for the dolphin was! We were calling it Lucky Stevie, after the rescuer and his dog.

As Courtney and I were in wetsuits we sat in what was essentially a large bath supporting the dolphin while people took photos. The flash made the dolphin briefly open its other eye and we relieved it did not look milky like the other one. Everyone left. We looked at each other in disbelief as the dolphin lay on our outstretched legs, breathing through its blowhole. We then had to drag ourselves away to do the intended whale research so the stations staff took over. You know you have had an unusual morning when looking at humpback whales close up in the wild seems unappealing.

As we were launching our boat at the boat ramp Sea World turned up with the head of Sea World driving and the vet who had been working so hard over the last couple of days due to the strandings. These guys are a big deal in the marine mammal world in Australia so we stopped for a quick chat. They were armed with a video camera and we were disappointed that we were not at the research station for the last part of the rescue. The other volunteer Kelly, who was not coming on the boat that day went back to photograph the end of the rescue and we headed out to sea.

Steve the male dolphin, not Lucky the female dolphin as we had thought is recovering on the Gold Coast, the place people normally go to get messed up. It is thought he has meningitis and may not survive but experts are carrying out the rehabilitation and we are hoping for the best and receiving regular updates. Steve the rescuer has been phoning around to find out whats going on as this is obviously a very unusual thing to do and he wants to show his daughter he has done something good. I will post more pics with my next blog if I remember but not on my computer.....


8th January 2010

Hey Nik, wow! You do get up to some adventures! Where are you in Australia that the water is cold enough to require a wetsuit? Are you doing grad school?
9th January 2010

Nichola, what a very interesting commentary, sounds like a load of fun. I hope you have now settled to your new life and the advantages of Australia outway those of home. Lovelly to have seen your photos and your happy smiley face again. Love Uncle John

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