The Best Thing to do to Help Stranded Sea Life is Call the Professionals

A Helping Hand

Todd Douglas

Green sea turtle, Sweet Pea

 

A porpoise, manatee or a turtle has washed up on shore and can’t get back to where it belongs. The sight of an animal in distress tugs at the heartstrings, and your first instinct may be to try and help it. 

But you might want to think twice before going it alone. Experts recommend that you first call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922 (or *FWC from a mobile phone) and report the stranding to the professionals. They will guide your efforts until qualified experts can arrive on scene and, meanwhile, you can provide rescue operations with important information in real time. It’s much like calling 911 for a human emergency.

Todd Douglas

Juvenile Loggerhead sea turtle, Log, arrived with a flipper missing. The cause is unknown.

“In Florida, the coastline is covered by organizations designated to respond to strandings or sick animals, but we ask the public to be our eyes out there,” said Andy Garrett, an FWC marine mammal biologist at the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory in St. Petersburg. “There is so much water out there, and if people see distressed marine animals, they should call the Wildlife Alert Hotline. Don’t put it off because it takes longer for us to get there.”

“Strandings” happen when a porpoise, whale, manatee or sea turtle gets sick, or confused, and winds up beaching itself. A layperson typically responds by getting the animal back into the water. Unfortunately, there may be something seriously wrong that’s just not readily apparent. Pushing it back out may cause more problems for the animal — and for the people who have a better shot at helping it.

“If a dolphin is sick, it may re-strand in a place that’s not accessible to us. It’s pretty common for them to re-strand if pushed out,” Garrett said.

Allen McDowell, curator of fish and invertebrates at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach, said that when you call the hotline, an FWC representative will ask you specific questions to help the agency dispatch appropriate rescue crews to check the animal and make arrangements for its rescue. 

“Stranded animals should never be moved back into deeper water as this could make the situation worse for the animal,” McDowell said. He cautioned that a successful rescue depends on not trying anything by yourself, unless given directions over the phone.

The Gulfarium rehabilitates animals through its nonprofit C.A.R.E Center. The program has helped rehabilitate and release species of sea turtles found along the Gulf Coast, including the loggerhead, green sea turtle, Kemp’s Ridley and the hawksbill. Hundreds of sea turtles have been nursed back to health and returned to the wild.

Todd Douglas

Juvenille Loggerheard sea turtle, Teddy, arrived as a small hatchling with its right front flipper almost completely severed requiring it to be amputated. The cause is unknown, but it was found in a parking lot suggesting a bird had picked it up and dropped it.

“For beach goers, the best course of action is just to observe from a distance then provide any observations of interest to FWC or to the responding rescue crews,” McDowell said. “Many of these animals can be very dangerous to be around even though they are out of the water. Occasionally, FWC officials or the rescue crews will ask for assistance from people at the scene, but they will be very specific about what they need and how to do it safely.”

Garrett, the FWC’s manatee rescue coordinator, likewise warns bystanders that it might not be a good thing to jump in and mess around with a thousand-pound animal like a manatee.

“These animals can be dangerous. It can be a bad situation,” Garrett said. “Also, sometimes these animals carry diseases that can transfer to people.”

If you actually manage to roll a manatee back into the water, it could possibly drown if care is not taken. He said there was a case like this recently in Pinellas County where bystanders rolled a stranded manatee into the water and it was found dead the next day, drowned.

“They are marine mammals, and if they are rolled the animal could aspirate water and have complications,” Garrett said. 

Another scenario is finding a marine mammal like a manatee in the water exhibiting seemingly strange behavior. If you think it’s in distress, think again. You might just be interrupting a mating ritual.

From a broader perspective, Garrett said that manatees are a federally protected species, and it’s illegal for citizens to intervene and touch them.

“There have been cases where we have instructed people to assist the animal until we get there, but we want that under our direction. We’d rather have the experts on scene, but people do what they do and it’s all about education,” Garrett said.

 

Of Facts and Theories

Garrett said that in Florida, the most commonly stranded mammals are manatees, followed by bottle-nosed dolphin.

“We get more manatees statewide than any other marine mammal,” he said. “That would be No. 1.”

Some marine species seem to be more prone to stranding themselves than others. Either way, there are different ideas on why it happens. It may be one, or a combination of, many factors such as illness, disease, toxic food and even old age. The majority of sea turtle strandings are related to infections, fishing-related pressures and boat strikes. Disease is the No. 1 factor in marine mammal strandings, according to Gulfarium’s general manager Patrick Berry. 

courtesy FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute/NOAA Permit 18786

A closeup of a dolphin calf found entangled in marine debris. Debris and trash in waters are one of the main causes of injured marine life. 

 

“Marine mammals are susceptible to infections and disease from all sorts of things: toxic prey items, pneumonia, toxoplasmosis and a myriad of bacteria,” he said. “Data suggests that a few of the animals are in latter stages of disease while others show symptoms related to older animals like dehydration, malnutrition and muscle damage.”

Sometimes individual animals mysteriously wash up, but when entire pods of animals show up, the occurrence is even more baffling. 

“The common theory is these large social groups end up following their leader that’s sick and it brings the whole group into a bad situation. Or, maybe the whole group is ill and disoriented,” Garrett said. 

Experts say that mass strandings have also been documented as a result of seismic or acoustic stress from either geologic or anthropogenic sources. The man-made acoustic stress theory is somewhat controversial because it suggests Navy underwater tests might be spooking or disorienting marine life, according to Garrett, but he said he hasn’t heard any definite reason why mass strandings occur.

“There have been some theories that there is man-made noise like sonar that disrupts their descent and their dive pattern and makes them disoriented,” he said.

While such disruptions fall into the realm of theory, there are other man-made problems facing wildlife.

Todd Douglas

Allen McDowell, Curator of Fish and Invertebrates, takes a look at Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, Jupiter, who was caught by fishermen in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Jupiter arrived at Gulfarium’s C.A.R.E. center to have the hook surgically removed.

 

“Talking about manatees and dolphins, there are issues that will cause either one to strand, including human issues like entanglement in fishing gear and collisions,” Garrett said. “We have had animals entangled in fishing gear, both manatees and dolphins. Also, they can get wrapped up in the rope that runs from a cage to a float, and will drag the cage around. People will cut the rope, but if the animal is still snagged or the rope is wrapped around a fin or flipper or tail, the rope could wind up amputating that vital appendage.”

In the case of sea turtles, you’ll find mostly individuals washed up. But mass turtle strandings do occur occasionally and are related to environmental stressors such as toxic algal blooms and cold-stunning events when water temperatures drop too low for short periods of time, McDowell said. 

“It is always difficult to determine the exact cause of diseases in sea turtles, but they are typically related to ingestion of diseased or toxic food items or environmental stressors,” he said.

Toxic algal blooms are being studied carefully due to the complex variables that cause blooms as well as the significant effects they have on the marine food webs and habitats close to shore.

Garrett noted that red tide, for example, produces a toxin that can accumulate in dolphins and manatees that eat contaminated food, resulting in paralysis and drowning.

 

Rescue to Rehab

Rehabilitation is absolutely critical as part of the rescue effort. Rarely will a stranded animal be returned immediately to the water as they typically require some form of rehabilitation/treatment before being released. If options are limited and the animal has to be returned to the water immediately, appropriate treatment will be given onsite.

“Almost all stranded animals require some form of rehabilitation or treatment so every effort is made to get them into a rehabilitation facility as quickly as possible,” McDowell said. “Animals in need of rescue typically are extremely weak, dehydrated and haven’t eaten in a while. There isn’t a magic pill that we can give them to make them feel better, so it is a process to get their bodies and physiology working normally again.” 

It takes a great deal of effort, time and resources to prepare an animal for release. That is why facilities like the Gulfarium C.A.R.E. Center are dependent upon community support and donations to keep everything going, McDowell said.

“This also allows the community to play an active role in marine conservation and see their own efforts making a difference in the lives of rescued marine life,” he said.

Garrett said that manatees are fairly successful in rehab whereas dolphins, especially younger dolphins, are often kept and not released. 

“The goal is to release, but that’s sometimes not feasible. We’re more apt to intervene on a human-related entanglement, but if it’s a more natural situation there’s a hands-off approach,” he said. “Some dolphins find themselves out of habitat and we’ll go in and relocate them, but with manatees we’re more apt to intervene. We still evaluate every case, but we’re a little more aggressive about manatees. We do have the authority to catch free-swimming manatees that are sick or injured. Since (manatees) have more protection and are endangered, we have more leeway to intervene to rescue and take them to rehab. Because dolphins are not endangered, usually it’s a more drawn-out process before we decide to intervene.”

There are three federally permitted critical care rehab facilities in Florida for manatees. These are the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, SeaWorld Orlando and the Miami Seaquarium.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of well-meaning volunteers and experts, a stranded animal occasionally does die. But its death isn’t meaningless, because researchers are afforded a chance to learn more about strandings and perhaps find ways to prevent them from happening.

“If an animal ends up passing away, we try to determine the cause of death or reason for the strand and anything we can do management-wise to stop it from happening again. We have a whole program dedicated to collecting dead animals for research,” Garrett said.

Jack Rudloe, founder of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, knows what it’s like to watch helplessly as a marine animal such as a sea turtle dies. Removing fishing hooks is one thing, and the lab has saved many turtles that way, but he knows all to well the diseases that can ravage sea turtles.

“We had a loggerhead which we just buried at sea a week or so ago and it was a horrible and tragic thing,” Rudloe said in August. “It was covered in barnacles, emaciated and just drifting around in sea for a long time. It could hardly move.”

Rudloe’s team went into action and brought the sick animal to the lab for treatment, which included efforts to try and get it to eat. Despite their best efforts, however, the turtle died. A necropsy revealed “blackened” tissues and brittle bones; the exact disease was not readily identified, he said. 

In another case of disease, a green sea turtle rescued near Wakulla County’s Piney Island in 2013 had clear signs of fibropapillomatosis, a viral illness that Rudloe described as a “very debilitating and horrible-looking disease” characterized by fibrous tumors that can impede vision, feeding and swimming. In the case of “Prince,” he was transferred to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for analysis and treatment. Rudloe said that these cases don’t usually offer a hopeful prognosis, but after a regimen of tube feedings, vitamin injection and tumor removal, “Prince” recovered and about a year later was released back into the wild. According to the FWC, the root cause of the virus behind the tumors is unknown, but research continues.  

Rehabilitation or treatment so every effort is made to get them into a rehabilitation facility as quickly as possible,” McDowell said. “Animals in need of rescue typically are extremely weak, dehydrated and haven’t eaten in a while. There isn’t a magic pill that we can give them to make them feel better, so it is a process to get their bodies and physiology working normally again.” 

It takes a great deal of effort, time and resources to prepare an animal for release. That is why facilities like the Gulfarium C.A.R.E. Center are dependent upon community support and donations to keep everything going, McDowell said.

“This also allows the community to play an active role in marine conservation and see their own efforts making a difference in the lives of rescued marine life,” he said.

Garrett said that manatees are fairly successful in rehab whereas dolphins, especially younger dolphins, are often kept and not released. 

“The goal is to release, but that’s sometimes not feasible. We’re more apt to intervene on a human-related entanglement, but if it’s a more natural situation there’s a hands-off approach,” he said. “Some dolphins find themselves out of habitat and we’ll go in and relocate them, but with manatees we’re more apt to intervene. We still evaluate every case, but we’re a little more aggressive about manatees. We do have the authority to catch free-swimming manatees that are sick or injured. Since (manatees) have more protection and are endangered, we have more leeway to intervene to rescue and take them to rehab. Because dolphins are not endangered, usually it’s a more drawn-out process before we decide to intervene.”

There are three federally permitted critical care rehab facilities in Florida for manatees. These are the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, SeaWorld Orlando and the Miami Seaquarium.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of well-meaning volunteers and experts, a stranded animal occasionally does die. But its death isn’t meaningless, because researchers are afforded a chance to learn more about strandings and perhaps find ways to prevent them from happening.

“If an animal ends up passing away, we try to determine the cause of death or reason for the strand and anything we can do management-wise to stop it from happening again. We have a whole program dedicated to collecting dead animals for research,” Garrett said.

Jack Rudloe, founder of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, knows what it’s like to watch helplessly as a marine animal such as a sea turtle dies. Removing fishing hooks is one thing, and the lab has saved many turtles that way, but he knows all too well the diseases that can ravage sea turtles.

“We had a loggerhead which we just buried at sea a week or so ago and it was a horrible and tragic thing,” Rudloe said in August. “It was covered in barnacles, emaciated and just drifting around in sea for a long time. It could hardly move.”

Rudloe’s team went into action and brought the sick animal to the lab for treatment, which included efforts to try and get it to eat. Despite their best efforts, however, the turtle died. A necropsy revealed “blackened” tissues and brittle bones; the exact disease was not readily identified, he said. 

In another case of disease, a green sea turtle rescued near Wakulla County’s Piney Island in 2013 had clear signs of fibropapillomatosis, a viral illness that Rudloe described as a “very debilitating and horrible-looking disease” characterized by fibrous tumors that can impede vision, feeding and swimming. In the case of “Prince,” he was transferred to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for analysis and treatment. Rudloe said that these cases don’t usually offer a hopeful prognosis, but after a regimen of tube feedings, vitamin injection and tumor removal, “Prince” recovered and about a year later was released back into the wild. According to the FWC, the root cause of the virus behind the tumors is unknown, but research continues.  


Manatee Rescue

When Hurricane Hermine hit Florida’s Gulf Coast in September of 2016, the heavy rains produced flooding, which cause several manatees to become displaced in a pond on Plantation golf course in Crystal River, Florida. 

The manatee sightings were reported to FWC and experts were immediately deployed. After performing a complete assessment of the manatees’ conditions, biologists determined that the sea cows were healthy, safe and had access to hydrilla, their prefered food. They were then able to craft a relocation plan. 

All seven of the manatees received an in-depth health assessment before being transported to a boat ramp in Kings Bay in Crystal River, where they were released back into their natural habitat. 

The Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership is a cooperative group of nonprofit, private, state and federal entities that work together to monitor the health and survival of
rehabilitated and released manatees.


Government Protection:  A Brief Primer

The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 — it was amended in 1994 — is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It protects all marine mammals including whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, manatees, sea otters and polar bears within the waters of the United States. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is a part of NOAA within the U.S. Department of Commerce, manages the MMPA.

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission is part of NOAA’s Southeast Region Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Locally, this network also includes the Central Panhandle Aquatic Preserve Office in Eastpoint, the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, Inc., in Destin, Gulf Islands National Seashore in Gulf Breeze, Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City, Northwest Florida Aquatic Preserves Office (FDEP) in Milton and the National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast Fisheries Science Center Panama City Laboratory in Panama City.

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