DEC Coordinates Dolphin Rescue off Long Island
Because of our mild weather this winter, schools of migrating fish like mackerel and herring have uncharacteristically lingered in the North Atlantic. As a result, dolphins and whales off the tip of Long Island have been enjoying an extended fish smorgasbord. And residents of East Hampton on Long Island’s north shore were treated to a rare natural spectacle, a large pod of dolphins close to shore.

Exciting News
Crowds of people watched with delight as dozens of the gregarious sea mammals cavorted within a stone’s throw of the beach. News of them spread quickly, and local media reported on the phenomenon. The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation recorded the dolphins’ sounds with an underwater microphone, known as a hydrophone. Local grade school children on an impromptu field trip were enthralled listening to the clicks and squeals of the dolphins.

Change in Mood
After a couple of days had passed, it became apparent that several of the dolphins were trapped by the tide in Northwest Creek, a shallow inlet. The mood quickly changed from one of celebration to one of alarm. DEC’s Region 1 Natural Resources Supervisor, Chuck Hamilton, was charged with organizing a rescue effort to free the dolphins before they stranded themselves in desperation. He subsequently contacted various federal, state and local government personnel, as well as volunteers and staff from the Riverhead Foundation.

Rescue Effort
Equipped with devices ranging from electronic pingers to steel pipes and hammers, boat crews created noise under water to drive the trapped animals out of the creek and into open water. According to Chuck, it was like “shoveling smoke.” All the commotion intended to free the dolphins also caused them distress, and rescuers had to be careful not to overdo it. Different dolphin species respond differently to the herding technique. These were common dolphins, which have smaller and more distinct markings than the bottlenose dolphins made famous on TV and at theme parks. Darkness and rough waters made it necessary to cease rescue attempts temporarily, providing an opportunity for the animals to calm down.

Mixed Results
Rescuers were able to free eight dolphins, but when operations were permanently suspended due to cold temperatures and high winds, three dolphins remained trapped and eventually died. Eight other dolphins had been confirmed dead, but necropsies (animal autopsies) failed to establish an exact cause of death.

Though disappointed by the deaths of some of the dolphins, Riverhead Foundation’s President, Chuck Bowman, said, “When dolphins become entrapped, rescue efforts hardly ever work. But we’ve at least been able to save eight of them, and I feel great about that.”

Editor’s Note: This story was compiled from DEC field reports and stories in Newsday and the East Hampton Star.