The National Aquarium Animal Rescue team responds to marine mammal and sea turtle strandings along the 4,320 miles of coastline in Maryland. We are permitted for stranding response through the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). All species of marine mammals are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and include all marine mammal species: dolphins, whales, seals, manatees, polar bears, sea lions, etc. Some marine mammals are fully aquatic, meaning they spend all of their time in the water – like dolphins, whales, and manatees. While other marine mammals are semi-aquatic, meaning they spend part of their time in the water, and part on land. Examples of semi-aquatic marine mammals include seals, polar bears, and sea lions.
Our team recently received a report of a live stranded pilot whale at Assateague Island National Seashore on Saturday, June 1. The animal had reportedly initially stranded earlier in the day and was pushed back into the water by a well-meaning member of the public. By the time the animal restranded the second time, it was lethargic and eventually refloated due to the rising tide. When a dolphin or whale strands, it expends a lot of energy in the process, and they often strand due to an underlying injury or illness.
The stranded pilot whale that appeared on the shore of Assateague Island last week.
While it is often tempting to want to help stranded dolphins and whales by pushing them back into the water, this will only result in prolonging the suffering of the animal, as it is highly likely the animal will restrand in another location where first responders are not prepared. Dolphins and whales also carry parasites and diseases that could pose a hazard to humans. In light of this recent stranding, I’d like to share some advice on what you should do when/if you encounter a wild animal on the beach:
If you encounter a semi-aquatic marine mammal resting on land, such as a seal, count yourself lucky! Sightings of these animals are rare in our area. Appreciate the animal from a safe distance (about 4-5 car lengths), take plenty of pictures or video, and remember that these are wild animals. Wild animals have natural instincts to protect themselves, and when a wild animal feels threatened it can bite. If a wild seal were to bite a human, there would be an unfortunate outcome for the seal due to risk of disease transmission to the human involved. If you suspect a semi-aquatic marine mammal is sick, injured, or in need of medical care, call the local authorities (animal control, coast guard, natural resources police, etc) or NMFS’s Stranding Hotline at 1-866-755-NOAA. Wait for a trained responder to arrive.
If you encounter a fully aquatic marine mammal on the beach, such as a dolphin or whale, document the event with photos or video from a safe distance (remember, they are wild animals), then call the local authorities or the NMFS Stranding Hotline immediately. Trained and authorized responders will be dispatched to assess the animal, collect valuable information, and determine the appropriate care. While it may be tempting to push stranded whales and dolphins back into the water, this is not recommended, as it may cause further injury or stress to the animal. You may be asked to remain on site to monitor the animal until the local responders arrive.
Marine mammal strandings have occurred throughout history, and can take place due to natural or human-related reasons. Marine mammal populations are generally difficult to study due to their extensive range in the open ocean, but strandings give us an opportunity to learn about the health of individual animals, species populations, and the overall health of the ocean – our ‘One Ocean.’
In continued celebration of World Oceans Day, what will YOU do to support the health of our One Ocean?