As you may know, one week ago today at about 10:00am an Antiguan family found a baby dolphin swimming outside their home in Willoughby Bay. They called me and told me it was less than a meter long and seemed to be weak. I quickly called a team of fellow Antiguan conservationists who lived fairly close to that side of the island and also posted info on the Facebook page Antigua Whale and Dolphin Network appealing for expert advice. By 11:12 am the people on the scene reported that the dolphin was occasionally getting washed close to the rocks on the west side of the small bay where she was found. I made contact with the management of stingray city who in the past had made enclosures, and asked them if they would help build one quickly so that we could secure the baby dolphin in the sea until we had clear consensus on what to do next. I also contacted our government's Fisheries Department to alert them of the situation. A few of the small team took a boat and spent an hour looking in and around Willoughby Bay to see if there were any other dolphins in the hope that "mom" could be spotted. This was unsuccessful and none were seen. We also asked the local sailing community to keep an eye out for dolphin pods. Very quickly marine mammal stranding experts were contacted around the world and at 12:40 pm Caribbean Stranding Network founder, Dr. Tony Mignucci agreed to come from Puerto Rico with a small team and emergency supplies. His immediate instructions were not to feed it and to take the dolphin out of the sea and to put it into a pool until he arrived early Saturday evening. He identified it as a Pantropical Spotted Dolphin (stenella attunuata) and thought it was 6 months old. According to the data available online, this species' conservation status is "of least concern" meaning that there are loads of them around the world and that they lived offshore in deeper waters. It would likely not feed on it's own in the wild until it was well over a year old. By this time we had a very good core group of about 7 people who have spent their lives in and around marine conservation here locally. Some in the group felt that we should take it out to sea and let nature take over. In the end we decided to follow Tony's expert advice despite some disagreement on the pool.
Some in the group felt that a small pen in the sea would have been better, but days later Dr. Tony explained that dehydrated marine mammals often were hydrated more effectively by putting them in a pool.
Originally Tony said that there was no chance at all of the dolphin being released into the wild ever again. He said "this dolphin can never be successfully released. I have a better chance of winning the lotto multiple times than this dolphin has after a future release." I wasn't there when he said this but the others in the group were and spoke about it to me. As it was a deal breaker for the group, Dr Tony agreed initially to take it back to his Facility in Puerto Rico after blood work was done and after it had been stabilized. He agreed that after rehabbing it and getting it prepared for a release, he would release it back into the wild unless there was a medical reason which would require it to remain in captivity. Examples of that would have been things associated with organ health or other physical issues. With this semi optimistic outlook, the group organized a schedule of volunteers to look after the dolphin in the pool just off the beach where it was found and starting from 1pm on Friday 4th when it entered the pool, volunteers sat with it around the clock day and night. While Dr Tony was on his way to Antigua through the BVI, he asked if we could find a local veterinarian who would be willing to help and learn along with his team. We called Dr. Fiona Francis from the Ark and she was delighted for the opportunity and agreed to come and help. After Dr Tony arrived on Saturday evening and did blood work, it started getting more healthy in the pool. Bell Lab was amazing and did the lab work on Sunday. Bloods showed that it was in good health and was just dehydrated as he had expected. Within a few days, she was able to swim unassisted around the pool only occasionally running into trouble. This at least made her look as healthy as she had been when we found her in the bay. Every hour another volunteer would arrive to sit or stand in the pool. Because rehab and release was the only option to the majority of the group, more calls were made around the worlds searching for opinions that would show any optimism for a future release. Dr. Tony agreed to give it a try despite his position that a successful release was almost impossible.
"Gentlemen – we conducted an emergency meeting today and determined the following in regards to your request for Atlantis involvement in the spotted dolphin calf rescue in Antigua. Our stranding authorization is for the Bahamas only and thus our resources very limited, as we have just completed two successful stranding response, transport, rehab and release events. However, we are willing to offer the following:This letter was not a shock to me but for the team was totally demoralizing and a big surprise. There was so much hope up until this point and a meeting was called for yesterday morning at 10:00am to discuss next option.
1. Atlantis will certainly participate in this animal’s rescue/recovery but has no intention of keeping this animal long-term. As is standard, we do not recommend a routine transport of dolphins younger than one (1) year old except in emergencies such as this and therefore, we would house this animal at Atlantis for at least this long.
2. We can provide housing, medical attention and long-term care for the dolphin at our cost, and as long as needed to ensure safe transport to another qualified (industry recognized and accredited) marine mammal facility at some point in the future, dependent upon the health status of this animal. We recognize the challenges faced by qualified U.S. institutions due to the current government shut-down, particularly as it affects this critical transport timing.
3. In this regard, we are requesting that the Antigua government or future receiving institution assist by absorbing the air transport costs, which will be substantial. We have received pricing for a round trip private charter jet out of Ft. Lauderdale for a 3 hour flight time (Nassau/Antigua) at $30,000.
4. Due to this animal’s young age, lack of early exposure and acquisition of survival skills at a critical period in its behavioral development, need for familiar surroundings and familial protection from predators, we do not recommend experimental “wild” release of this animal in the future as it will have little chance of survival.
5. We highly recommend that a long-term housing facility be located and the animal transported directly there, to prevent further disruption of this animals important socialization/developmental/
6. Should you choose to request the housing/care option from Atlantis, we cannot obtain CITES permits until late Friday at the earliest due to tomorrow’s holiday here. Therefore, air transport cannot be arranged until Bahamas government authorizes. This may take valuable time that should not be spared.
Let me know if you have questions."
10:00am on Thursday 10th a meeting where the core group once again met to discuss options. This time instead of fisheries, we had someone from the Government who had 10 years of study abroad in various different Environmental fields and who had 15 years of work experience with our local Fisheries department, Environment Division and National Parks Authority. She made it abundantly clear that in her professional opinion, we needed to consider option 3 as discussed the night before. She said that this was her personal opinion based on all the info and on her various related degrees and her 15 years of environmental work, and it was the most natural thing to do. Any other decision was being made for the benefit of humans in an emotional capacity. Four others at the meeting completely agreed with her for a multitude of reasons including simply it being the most humane thing to do at this point. Another thing she said which i think is the best advise given so far is that we need to develop local guidelines for future strandings that could be endorsed by Fisheries. For example, these could have a list of species, their conservation status and the chances or stats of rehab and release. This will happen again as it has happened before and we need to have solid plans for what to do next time. Many feel that taking it out the water was the wrong thing to do from day one, but with the limited info we had, it was felt that we had to try to help especially with the advice from Dr. Mignucci.
Dr Tony was not happy with the idea of euthanasia and said he would not help anyone with putting "a healthy dolphin" down. He said we came here to save it and did that but wouldn't help kill it. He also said that a swim with dolphin park in St. Kitts, Dolphin Discovery had agreed to take it with the understanding that they would attempt to rehab and release it. He told us that they wouldn't put it with their other dolphins until some special virus test was done and in the meantime they would have to find something to keep her. There was not a great deal of trust or confidence for the facility in St Kitts for some reason (maybe because of stuff like this) and some of the team thought that this could be an option. I said that at the end of the day, the dolphin didn't belong to any of us and that the decision rested with Fisheries. I felt that we needed to give them all the facts and let them decide what to do since there wasn't a consensus within our group. It had been an emotional rollercoaster and people were exhausted and drained. There was no clear agreement on the options. I categorically am against and always have been against marine mammals being kept in captivity and especially for the purpose of recreation. I think a goldfish in your aquarium is very different to an intelligent marine mammal being stuck in a pool for the rest of it's life. I had a hard time with the idea of humanly killing it too, and that was the kinda job and decision that needed to be taken by a Vet or fisheries officer. Either way, it was an impossible decision for me personally because i knew that the best best possible outcome of sending it to a marine mammal center or dolphin park was a few years in a walled tank until it died. The stats were there to show this to be true, so i couldn't support it and felt that it would only help one of these parks with their PR which would show us send them a dolphin to be "saved". Already, with the utmost respect to Dr. Tony, he is saying he and his team saved it. I know that's what he thinks, but in my opinion, he didn't. He has kept it alive and it is doing as good now as when we first found it in the sea.
Ultimately we wrote to Fisheries telling them that Atlantis fell through and that we didn't feel that we could make a decision on what to do next mainly because there were strong differences of opinion on what we should do. We also reminded them that something had to be done because it was now 7 nights in a pool. Dr Tony wrote to fisheries asking them to release it into his custody so that he could export it to the St. Kitts facility. It is my understanding that this permission has been granted by fisheries and while I disagree with this decision, it's not mine to make. The dolphin will likely leave Antigua on Monday after 10 nights in a swimming pool. I for one think this is not a humane or sensible solution and several others who helped around the clock over the past week have dropped out at this point leaving responsibility with Dr. Tony Mignucci. Some of the core group feel that this is a bad decision in the grand scheme of things. We will see what happens to the little dolphin next.
All I can say is that I have had experience with saving marine species since i was a kid with my dad back then and without him as an adult. Recently we saved a 25 foot long sperm whale that was attempting to beach itself. Knowing what to do with wild animals is never an easy thing, but this has been the most difficult ethical and moral dilemma I have come across.
edit Jan 12th, 2019
At 10:40am today I received a call from a close friend who was offshore fishing. He was alongside a pod of what he described as "spotted dolphins". He sent me the GPS coordinates and I passed them on to the original whatsapp group that's been used to coordinate this event. Forty minutes later I asked for comment and then later at 11:54am Fisheries said that is was too late now and that they wouldn't agree to taking the calf there at this stage.