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Snapshot of a Stranding

Cape Cod sees more marine mammals wash ashore than anywhere else in the country. Now all that’s left is to figure out why

Photo by Michael Cuoco

“It’s not just about the conservation and protection of marine mammals, but about the fish species that [NOAA is] tasked with managing as well,” she says. “It’s part of a bigger picture of ocean health and I think we’re one piece of the puzzle that’s really important.”

The work would not be possible without the army of some 350 trained volunteers, like Cuoco, who respond to strandings along the 700 miles of coastline from Plymouth, throughout the Cape and across to the Rhode Island border. Their efforts are invaluable and greatly contributed to the successful release of 76 percent of the live dolphins that stranded, Moore says.

“It’s not a pretty co-existence [between mammals and humans] going back many years,” says Plaut, a first responder from Wellfleet who previously ran the Nantucket Marine Mammal Stranding Team. “If we can do a little something now, I feel really good about that.”

The hours are long, and the work is taxing, back breaking and at times grueling. Some days, members of IFAW’s team are relieved by colleagues from marine organizations as far away as Virginia. But most days local people, including numerous volunteers, spend hours slogging through mud carrying stretchers bearing 250-pound dolphins. The day can start with a morning stranding bayside in Brewster and end after dark with a release in open waters off Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown.

But the reward can be big. On Valentine’s Day, 11 dolphins stranded near Chequessett Neck in Wellfleet and 10 survived. Rescuers decided to wait for the tide to come in and try to herd the survivors back out rather than move the dolphins on stretchers across mud to a trailer nearly a mile away, then set them free in outer waters. Volunteer Holly Kuhn, who is also a Bourne firefighter, was there that day and waded in with the creatures as the tide rolled in.

“Once they did start swimming, we had 10 dolphins swimming around us,” Kuhn recounts. “They were like little kids. They were more relaxed at that point. . .One of them started swimming off in the wrong direction and Katie started chasing him like a little kid.”

“The change in behavior was remarkable because the dolphins went from being stressed out and stuck in the mud, and as they became buoyant again they started letting out these chirps,” she says. “It was a complete change in behavior and mood.” It was a scene deserving of a snapshot.

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