Dolphin rescue continues in East Hampton
BY EMILY C. DOOLEY
SPECIAL TO NEWSDAY
January 15, 2007
More photos of the rescue here:
Rescuers in East Hampton failed yesterday to herd about 20 common dolphins through a shallow, narrow inlet and into the harbor beyond.
The dolphins became stranded Tuesday and since then, four have died. A fifth was euthanized Saturday night in North Sea Harbor in Southampton.
They’re stressed; they haven’t been eating," said Charles Bowman, president of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.
Rescuers said they did not know the reason behind the mass stranding, which happens when animals beach themselves or become trapped in shallow waters. Scientists have also been puzzled by the apparently high number of strandings this winter over a large geographic area, from Long Island to Boston, New England Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said yesterday.
Eight common dolphins were stranded in Boston Harbor yesterday and more than 30 animals have stranded on Cape Cod since Dec. 30, LaCasse said.
In several cases, necropsies showed that the dolphins had underlying health issues, though it will be weeks before final test results are in. “It definitely has everyone’s attention,” LaCasse said.
New England Aquarium scientists were helping to coordinate the East Hampton rescue effort, which included about 80 people from local, state and regional agencies. The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service also were involved.
Scientists said they believed the mass stranding in Northwest Creek was the first of its kind on Long Island.
They hoped noise would chase the dolphins out of the shallow waters, but after more than three hours it was clear the plan would not work, and they began to think about today’s efforts.
Seven boats circled the mammals as pilots revved their motors and passengers banged oars in hopes that the racket would push the adult and calf dolphins through the inlet.
But as the animals neared freedom, they darted from the shallow inlet back into the creek. On the third and final attempt, the dolphins skirted the shore and swam into a shallow area near where curious residents had gathered along the dunes to watch the rescue attempt.
"They seem to be immune from noises now," said Connie Merigo, a senior scientist and stranding specialist from the New England Aquarium who was coordinating the movement of the boats.
A thick fog rolled in just after noon and low tide neared, halting the rescue attempt.
“They hit 4 feet of water and it was like hitting a brick wall,” said Charles T. Hamilton, regional emergency response coordinator for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “It’s like trying to make a Chihuahua jump over a 6-foot fence,” he added.
The dolphins arrived in the creek seven days ago, attracting curious onlookers who flocked to see the animals, which typically stay offshore. So many people came Saturday that East Hampton town police blocked off roads leading to the area. Only local residents who could pick their way through the dunes managed to see the rescue.
"They were five, 10 yards off the shore," said resident Amy Wolf, who brought her children Jack, 6, and Teddy, 5, to see the animals. "You could really see them.
<strong>Next step up in the air</strong>
Biologists said they planned to monitor the dolphins throughout the day yesterday and meet back today to check their condition. Hamilton said it is not clear how they will proceed, though using noise again so soon is unlikely.
What’s next will be determined by the weather, tides and the dolphins’ behavior.
Dredging the inlet to make it deeper is not an immediate option because of weather conditions and the time it would take to remove the sand. Hamilton said he fears the noise technique may be too aggravating. Picking them up and moving them will depend on the animals’ health. And there is the chance the dolphins will swim their way out on their own, Hamilton said.
There are about 120,700 common dolphins in the western North Atlantic and, according to scientists, they swim in groups ranging from 10 dolphins to thousands. They can dive as deep as 660 feet and stay underwater for as long as eight minutes, LaCasse said. Their life span is 25 to 30 years.