Being at the Oceanic Society field station, you never know what you may see or learn from day to day. That is the beauty and excitement of field research, and also the very reason why it is so valuable for us to be present here in Turneffe Atoll. Following is my account from an unexpected encounter that took place a few days ago. Your support helps us continue to be here in Turneffe and to make these experiences possible. Please consider supporting our campaign on Indiegogo.
Her name was Annabelle. At least, that's what felt right to me. She was a juvenile pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata).
She washed up on the shores of Calabash Caye around 10 AM, August 3rd, 2015. When our partners from the University of Belize found her, she was beaching herself on her left side. They did their best to hold her, and immediately called Oceanic Society to see if we could provide assistance, given that we are the lead researchers on marine mammals in Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve. Alton Jeffords on our team received the call around ten. When he arrived, the staff had been in the water holding the animal to prevent it from beaching itself, and he brought her to our Blackbird Caye Field Station in the boat. Annabelle's left eye was shut and her right eye was clouded over. Her rostrum was bloody and skinned, perhaps from scraping on the reef as she washed into shore. Beneath her lower jaw was a gaping wound that may have been recent or could have been a factor in her sickness.
When Kathi Koontz (Oceanic Society field station manager) and I arrived on the scene, she helped Alton construct an ocean pen with a large wire gate and wooden posts every 2 ft. We draped the gate in sheets to prevent Annabelle from potentially scraping herself.
Kathi called on her 15 years of marine mammal stranding work to make Annabelle as comfortable as possible while we assessed whether there was anything more than could be done. She contacted veterinarians, biologists, and conservationists in the US and Belize to get recommendations on procedures we should follow. There are no aquariums or rehabilitation facilities suitable for cetaceans in Belize, but we could obtain feeding tubes in case she wasn't able to eat on on her own.
But at that moment, we needed a way to keep her afloat. She seemed too weak to hold up her peduncle and flukes; they dragged in the sand scraping against dead coral. Alton's suggestion of a life vest under her midsection just behind her pectoral flippers worked like a charm. We put two life vests beneath her to get her afloat, and quickly she began kicking her flukes again.
We took 2-3 hour shifts throughout the night. I took the first shift from 9PM-12AM. Alton left and I stayed alone with Annabelle. The stars blanketed the sky with bright white pin drops and broad strokes of a gray smoky Milky Way down the center. The water was still around us. Small bioluminescent worms wriggled around at the surface, shining a bright green before their glow faded back to black.
Dolphins are acoustic creatures, so I set-up my hydrophone to record any sounds Annabelle might make. She could produce high-frequency sounds beyond our hearing range, so a broadband recording is needed to identify most of her calls. When I dropped the hydrophone in the water, right away what I noticed weren't dolphin sounds, but a loud and jarring creak. I looked below and noticed one of the wooden panels of the makeshift pen was being pushed by the current and causing the noise. I slipped in and spent nearly an hour trying to jam sticks in at various angles at the base to prevent movement. Once I was settled and the noise was done, I sat upright at the front of the dock with Annabelle three feet below, and I listened. Her breaths came every 30 seconds or so, most preceded with a small whimpering aspiration from her blowhole.
For the next few hours, I recorded her breaths every 30 minutes to an hour. Every hour I entered the water and adjusted the life vests if they had slipped. I placed my hand under her chest, on her surprisingly soft smooth skin to measure her heart rate.
When I sat on the dock, I put the headphones in and listened. I could hear her breaths in the air and in the water due to the stillness of the night. By 11PM my body and mind were starting to fail. I pinched myself and began to read A Sand County Almanac aloud to her. When Kathi came to relieve me of my shift, I sauntered back to my bedroom delirious and fell right to sleep. In the early morning I arose again, rested and excited to check on Annabelle. This time she wasn't looking as good. She arched her body upright so that her rostrum and flukes were both out of water. I entered the water and adjusted the life vests in case they were causing her pain or making her struggle to stay positioned normally. She spasmed and convulsed but there was little that we could do to help her. After about an hour she seemed to calm down. She resumed normal swimming, paddling her flukes gently, while the ropes kept her suspended swimming in a small region.
In the last twenty minutes of her life, she burst into movement. With her other eye completely open, it appeared almost as if she were recovering. But in end, she slipped beneath the water after one final heave, and did not rise again. Kathi and Alton lifted her to ensure she wasn't drowning, but she was gone.
We moved her into the shade on the ground. We were sad for her passing, but in order for us to make the most of her untimely death, we would need to quickly begin our necropsy. Our best chance of discovering what may have caused her death lay within her. With no visible scars from boat strike or injury beyond the small hole beneath her mouth, it was likely something was ailing her and at some point caused her to separate from her group in the deep sea.
Our plans for the day were to take the family travel group on dolphin research surveys and snorkeling. I explained to them that our morning dolphin activity would instead be the necropsy. They were excited for the opportunity, and postponed their morning activities until after 1030AM. With the group assisting us in data collection, Kathi and I began measuring the animal to fill in the standard dossier on stranded animals.
Inside her stomach we found a dozen or so small squid beaks. This was evidence of her prey source, but her mostly empty stomach told us that she hadn't eaten much as of late. Under her skin, small cysts emerged in vast numbers. Perhaps this contributed to her failing health. We preserved our samples in the freezer for future genetic testing.
The samples and measurements we gathered are the first of her species in this region. In fact, this is the first reported stranding of a pantropical spotted dolphin in Belize and one of only a handful of sightings of this species in the region. The acoustic recordings I gathered show many faint high frequency calls; the first recorded for this species in the region as well.
Though tragic, we hope that Annabelle's death will allow us to learn about her life and about her species in ways that may help protect them in the future.
Eric Ramos is a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center in new York City in the area of animal behavior and comparative psychology training. He has been working as a field researcher and trip leader with Oceanic Society since 2011, leading boat-based research trips with volunteers and students to gather data on the population of bottlenose dolphins at Turneffe Atoll, Belize.