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Philanthropy A to Z

C – Cape Cod Daring Dolphin Rescue

Text by Elizabeth Shaw

While it’s sharks and seals who make the headlines here on the Cape, there are surprising populations of dolphins, whales and other sea mammals that populate the waters of the National Seashore and Cape Cod Bay. Unfortunately, due to tricky tides and other factors, these animals have a difficult time navigating these waters and strand themselves on Cape Cod beaches. Luckily, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research (MMRR) team is doing everything they can to help, and to figure out the causes of such stranding events. 

Stranding Coordinator Misty Niemeyer says there is no such thing as an average day for her and the team at the IFAW, “It’s incredibly unpredictable. We’re always prepared for anything to happen.” The agency is authorized to handle all mammal stranding responses, helping whales, dolphins, seals and porpoises, working from Cape Cod Bay up to Plymouth and down to the Rhode Island boarder. While the main goal is to get the stranded animals back into the wild water, the team does so much more. Some rescues need a little more care and attention, with transfer to a rehabilitation facility being required before release, while other calls are due to deceased animals on the beach. These types of strandings present opportunities to study the animal, their species and cause of death, whether it was natural or the result of human interaction, such as entanglement or a vessel strike. The team uses their time with the animals to research and investigate the causes of stranding, as well as other environmental factors and trends, that they can’t study as easily when the animals are out in the wild. Combining the research from live and dead stranding responses, IFAW is able to put together the pieces of the puzzle to see the larger picture. “Marine mammals are very difficult to study, given the environment they live in,” Niemeyer explains. “So stranded animals give insight into what’s going on with the health of the populations, and they’re great sentinels for ocean health.” 

In the last three years, the IFAW has seen record numbers of strandings. The average number per year is 262 and last year alone, the organization handled 477 strandings. Niemeyer says 2020 is shaping up to have less strandings than last year, though still much higher than average, all while dealing with the pandemic and modified procedures. She also notes that changes in stranding patterns have occurred, making them even less predictable than before. But the work doesn’t stop after an animal is rescued. Niemeyer and her team are consistently maintaining equipment, training volunteers and working through data collected during rescues, all while anticipating a call, whether for a dead whale, a stranded seal or a pod of 45 dolphins stranded in Wellfleet (which was a call the team received in August of 2020). “It’s so much more than going out and rescuing or examining an animal, there’s a lot more to it to make sure we’re doing it correctly and getting the information needed out there,” she says. 

Cape Cod Bay is in the top three places where dolphin strandings occur across the world, with a quarter of all U.S live dolphin strandings happening here, due to complicated topography and drastic tides. The I in IFAW does stand for International, and Niemeyer and the team work closely with other organizations across the world to study and learn as much as they can from stranded animals. Niemeyer says they wouldn’t be able to help these animals if it weren’t for local community partners and volunteers, including town harbormasters and departments of resources, as well as other Cape based wildlife agencies.  

Niemeyer says the most important thing anyone who comes across a stranded animal can do is call the team’s hotline, 508-743-9548. Visit ifaw.org/stranding to learn more about what to do if you encounter a stranded animal.



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