COURTESY OF CHICAGO ZOOLOGICAL SOCIETY

Brookfield, Ill.—An 11-month-old female bottlenose dolphin calf is swimming free of fishing gear that could have severed her tail. This week, the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), in collaboration with nine other organizations, mounted a life-saving rescue in Little Marco Pass in Collier County, Florida.

“We are seeing situations like this all too often along Florida’s coasts,” said Dr. Randy Wells, director of the Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program and the rescue’s coordinator. “This otherwise healthy dolphin calf likely would have died had we not been able to remove the fishing gear. Her entanglement is a prime example of why we humans need to be careful with our fishing gear and watch out for wildlife that lives in our coastal waters.” 

The dolphin, a dependent calf nicknamed Skipper, was first spotted by members of the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project, who documented the entanglement and reported it to state and federal authorities in August. After the dolphin was spotted still entangled in fishing gear numerous times over several weeks, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees the protection of marine mammals in the United States, asked SDRP to try to free the dolphin. An initial effort by staff from SDRP and Mote Marine Laboratory to remove the gear with a long-handled disentanglement tool on August 28 was not successful. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service and SDRP contacted members of the Southeast Regional Marine Mammal Stranding Network to help with a rescue, which also included Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and FWC Law Enforcement, SDRP, Mote Marine Laboratory, SeaWorld, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, University of Florida, the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project. 

Early on Thursday, September 4, a team of more than 30 people and six boats gathered at the Collier Boulevard boat ramp near Marco Island. Members of the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project and a team from Clearwater Marine Aquarium had already been on the water looking for the calf and her mother, nicknamed Halfway, and had found them. 

The rescue effort involved setting a net to encircle the mom and calf. The net corral was then moved to shallower water, and team members got into the water around the net to be able to briefly restrain the animals. In the water, veterinarians found that about a foot of metal fishing leader, probably from a trolling rig, was wrapped around the base of Skipper’s tail and her flukes. Left unchecked, the stiff metal wire would have cut deeper into the dolphin and eventually severed her tail. 

“This was a great team effort for a successful dolphin calf disentanglement,” said Denise Boyd, FWC research associate who coordinates stranding responses in Florida’s Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties. “We hope that the dolphin will go on to lead a healthy life from here on in.” 

This and other marine mammal rescues are possible thanks in part to a grant awarded to the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program from the NOAA Fisheries’ John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program. This federal program supports the costs for teams to help dolphins that, like Skipper, face life-threatening situations. 

Rescuing stranded marine mammals takes a group effort, from members of the public who report sick or injured animals and the management agencies that authorize such rescues to take place to the “boots-on-the-ground” teams at nonprofit institutions and organizations that conduct many such rescues. Nonprofit organizations rely on public donations to fund such work. To help, please consider making a donation to the Chicago Zoological Society at CZS.org/Support or to another