It didn’t make the same worldwide headlines as the dead Gowanus dolphin, but a remarkable rescue of nearly 150 dolphins in imminent danger of stranding was just carried out in Australia, where wildlife experts deployed a questionable but ultimately successful technique to lure the large pod to safety.
A juvenile dolphin was captured and used to issue distress calls out in deeper water, in order to attract the pod’s attention and lead it to safety.
The innovative rescue took place over the weekend in Whalers Cove, near Albany, on the southern coast of Western Australia. Officials from the state’s Department of Environment and Conservation said the dolphins were milling about in shallow water, and at risk of mass stranding when they were discovered. One animal had already died.
Wildlife experts decided to temporarily capture a juvenile member of the pod and take it by boat out into the safety of open water. The hope was that the young dolphin would cry out and entice the rest of the pod to swim away from the shallow waters of the cove.
“The juvenile was sending out distress signals, which was calling the dolphins in,” conservation leader Deon Utber said in a written statement reported by Australian media. “As soon as it was translocated to deeper waters, the pod followed it out and last we saw they were swimming out to sea.” By Sunday morning there was no sign of the dolphins.
U.S. cetaceant experts contacted by TakePart had never heard of such an unusual rescue technique. And though it did raise some ethical questions, they said the method should be studied for potential deployment in certain other situations where cetaceans are in immediate danger of being stranded, or even being driven to slaughter by humans.
“The greater issue is urging the group to leave shallow waters,” said Dr. Naomi A. Rose, senior scientist at Humane Society International. “The juvenile could have been injured or distressed to the point of catatonia when it was captured, but the entire group might have stranded, so it was a risk, but I think worth taking. The ethics are somewhat situational here—the greatest good for the greatest number.”
I asked Rose why the dolphins wouldn’t swim out to sea on their own—in other words, why did it take a calf in distress calling out to them? It was one of the “great mysteries” of natural mass strandings, she said.
“Most of the time, only one or two members of a pod are ill or injured—sometimes it appears none are,” Rose explained. “Yet the whole pod strands. It is believed in some cases they get disoriented in shallow water or in geographically tricky areas. It is believed that in others, when one or more members are already in distress, their group cohesion and altruistic tendencies are so strong that they simply follow the distressed member or members onto the beach. So if the distressed juvenile calls, then they might finally get oriented and head in the right direction, or shift their focus to the new distress.”
So why did the entire pod go find the calf, instead of just its mother? “They are social animals. It takes a village,” Rose said. “They respond to people in distress, so any fellow pod member will certainly get their attention.”
Neuroscientist and dolphin expert Dr. Lori Marino of Emory University and The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy agreed. “The distress call might have broken the concentration of the dolphins and allowed them to shift their focus from those who are ill and stranding.” She added that it was somewhat “ethically questionable” to capture a young animal for such a purpose, “but then again, it may have saved many lives.”
Marino wondered if such a tactic would work using “canned” juvenile distress signals that could be played when a group tries to strand, “or whether it needs to be an individual who is actually part of the group and known.” The idea has been raised before, she said, for strandings as well as “steering dolphins away from hunters in Taiji,” and other locations where mass killings occur.
But even prerecorded decoys are found ethically wanting by some advocates, Marino said, because they can cause distress. “I agree that it’s not ideal. But in my view, it may be a small temporary price to pay for freedom and survival. I would use it if I thought it was effective in keeping dolphins away from the Cove, for instance.”
It is a fascinating idea, though the ethics—including trying to experiment on wild cetaceans to see if canned distress signals will even work – remain to be determined by experts.
Even if it is ethical, using a live or canned decoy to distract animals away from danger “might not work in all scenarios, not just in terms of the dolphins’ response but in terms of logistics,” HSI’s Rose said. “Maybe some of the animals are actually stranded, rather than milling in shallow water. Maybe it’s too rough for a juvenile to be safely put into a boat and taken into deeper water by rescuers. Maybe any number of other issues,” she said. “As for whether it would work for large whales, some of them aren’t as social as dolphins, some are—it would depend on the species.”
Regardless of whether this fascinating experiment will be or should be repeated in the future, one thing is certain about the story: It reminds us yet again of the extraordinary degree of compassion, communion and solidarity possessed by these staggeringly intelligent marine mammals.
Michel Mountain at Earth in Transition wrote about the recent spate of stories on cetacean compassion and trust, including dolphins who help a lost seal, sperm whales who adopt a deformed dolphin, a family of dolphins keeping a sick member afloat, and an entangled dolphin patiently seeking assistance from divers in Hawaii.
We “can’t help but be struck by a sense of our commonality with these animals,” Mountain noted. Indeed, there are plenty of stories where entire families of humans have risked their own safety to rescue a loved one. Why would dolphins be any different?
“Separated by tens of millions of years of evolution, we see dolphins behave in ways that are part of their nature in the same way they are part of ours,” Mountain said. “And, apparently, they see the same thing in us.”
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David Kirby, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, has been a professional journalist for 25 years and was a contracted writer for The New York Times, where he covered health and science, among other topics. He has written for national magazines and was a correspondent in Mexico and Central America from 1986-1990. His third book, Death at SeaWorld, was published by St. Martin’s Press.