It’s not hard to fall in love with Marcos.
The young striped dolphin was separated from his family last summer and found close to shore in August near Roquetas de Mar—about 60 miles southeast of Granada on the southern coast of Spain—lost, sick and all alone.
Often under these circumstances, stranded dolphins end up in captivity at marine mammal entertainment parks, where they perform and breed until they die. But fate had other plans for this little cetacean.
Instead, a local, non-profit marine mammal outfit, Promar, acted quickly and transferred the little dolphin into a makeshift, netted off seapen in a sheltered bay in the nearby town of Almerimar. Since then, Promar volunteers have set up camp on the beach and tended to Marcos, sometimes around the clock. The ultimate goal is to rehabilitate and release him back to the open Mediterranean, if possible with his own family.
By all accounts, Marcos is clever, playful and affectionate, and he seems to like attention. When he doesn’t get it, I am told, he finds a way to nudge or nuzzle a caretaker until they relent.
It must be a good deal of fun to babysit a charismatic infant dolphin, but it isn’t cheap, and it sure isn’t easy, especially along the storm-tossed coast of wintertime Spain.
The cost of netting, food and medical care had already strained Promar’s modest budget tremendously when, last weekend, a massive rain storm strafed the area with gale-force winds. It destroyed the netting that Promar volunteers had just spent days to fortify and expand. They found Marcos near the mouth of the bay, with minor scrapes and bruises from being washed against the rock jetty.
“We all jumped into action,” Promar’s Alexander Sanchez told TakePart. “Everyone at the camp was working overnight, our coordinator Eva with the flu and all. I myself left Granada to go back and help at five in the morning.”
Volunteers retrieved the dolphin and placed him in small round plastic pool on the beach—far from ideal, but better than leaving him out in the churning waters. Even so, Marcos did nothing but swim in tight circles in his kiddie pool. The Promar crew camped out on the beach to look after him 24 hours a day, even as forecasters predicted the storminess would worsen in coming days.
As the weather deteriorated, volunteers pulled their vehicles around the small pool to protect Marcos from the elements, and waited.
Meanwhile, Sanchez started a Facebook page and Twitter account to solicit donations for “Camp Marcos.” Another volunteer set up a donation website and a group of American activists called Fins and Fluke helped raise cash as well.
Within a day or so, Promar had been given enough money (US $1,500) from Marcos’s growing cadre of global fans to purchase a large, deep, rectangular fiberglass pool, for temporary shelter whenever the weather grows foul.
“Today, it got very bad, and the winds shattered the windows of a bus and toppled down trees,” Sanchez said Thursday, January 24. “At Camp Marcos it even managed to topple over our new big pool, which hadn’t been filled with water yet.” The pool was undamaged, but filling it will be delayed.
“Marcos is safe, nobody worry!” Sanchez said in an email to supporters. “The team was quick to take him out of harm's way, and he is currently in the smaller pool, and protected by the vehicles as before, and in good company.” Marcos, he added, “is the priority and we are tough as old boots, so I'm confident he will be fine.”
Marcos will almost surely outlive the rocky winter: he has already survived more than five months in his little seapen. Promar expects him to remain with them for the next year to 18 months, before they can consider releasing him. They will also likely need to locate another seapen, where he can learn to catch fish, etc, and where he may need to make a permanent home.
That’s because returning Marcos to his family could be difficult.
“Striped dolphins live far offshore in deep water and travel in groups of 100-1000,” Ric O’Barry, the dolphin activist and star of The Cove told TakePart last month. “Ideally, we’d find his mother. But they’re moving fast. And if we find them with a helicopter, we have to go back to Spain and get Marcos and by that point, they are gone. So maybe he cannot be released. Maybe a sanctuary is best.” O’Barry spent months in Spain last year helping Promar establish Marcos’ seapen.
For Promar and others, “Placing Marcos in captivity is not an option,” Sanchez said. “All striped dolphins in captivity have died within weeks of being placed into a captive situation. Striped dolphins just refuse to eat in captivity.”
Interestingly, Marcos may be eating because he does not feel like he’s in captivity. After all, when his net was destroyed in the storm, he was free to go.
But caring for Marcos, rain or shine, for the next 18 months is going to cost a good deal of Euros. “If you cannot donate, there is still something you can do to help,” Sanchez said. “If you can take a few minutes of time to share Marcos and his story to others, that would be greatly appreciated.”
Alex Lewis, of Fins and Fluke, told TakePart that Marcos still needs money, not only for net replacement, but also for “general upkeep of the pen, medications, food, running tests, and so on.”
The cost is well worth it, she said: “This little dolphin has a real shot at life, and as activists it’s something we've all dreamed of: rehabbing and releasing a dolphin. So we need as much attention as possible on this.”
I know that I am rooting for this plucky animal. And, as Lewis noted, “The very cool thing about this is that Promar jumped in and saved him, before anyone else could grab him.”
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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.