A melon-headed whale swam slowly around an above-ground pool Sunday at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies after being rescued Saturday morning from the surf in Fort Morgan, Alabama.
The whale gives IMMS and the world a rare opportunity to learn more about this member of the dolphin family, usually found offshore in deep Gulf waters.
IMMS Executive Director Moby Solangi said Sunday he hopes the animal survives, but his chances are uncertain. IMMS wants to rehabilitate the dolphin and return him to the wild wearing a satellite chip, which will tell scientists more about the animal’s range and habits. The animal is 8 feet, 2 inches long and weighs 300 pounds.
A female melon-headed whale, believed to be from the same pod, had to be euthanized after being found in the surf Thursday, also at Fort Morgan but in a different location.
Solangi said the surviving dolphin is on antibiotics for a lung infection. Other tests are still out that will help determine what caused the stranding. Solangi said a stranding is nature’s way of ridding the ocean of sick animals.
“We didn’t think it would make it in the the truck coming here,” Solangi said. “If it survives the first 72 hours, we are hopeful.”
IMMS has a marine-mammal veterinarian and necropsy facilities. The dolphin arrived here from Alabama’s Dauphin Island Sea Lab.
“These marine mammals are the canary in the mine,” Solangi said. “If they’re doing good, that means the environment is good. When they’re gone, we’re next. By monitoring them, we know what’s going on in the environment.”
Solangi said he is seeing animals wash up on the beach in record numbers, whether they be dolphins or the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle.
He said Hurricane Harvey could have disrupted the melon-headed whale’s habitat. But the bigger concern is pollution from waterways and rivers that feed into the Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico, carrying agricultural, industrial and residential waste.
The pollution leads to depleted oxygen levels in the Gulf, creating a dead zone that has expanded this year to 10,000 square miles.
Heavy rainfall this summer also has harmed aquatic life.
“What they’re telling me is the oyster fishery has been decimated with this rainfall,” Solangi said. He said blue crabs feed on organisms in oyster reefs and also hide in the reefs. Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles feed on blue crabs.
So far this year, Solangi said, 36 Kemp’s Ridleys have been found dead on Mississippi beaches, compared to 10 or 15 a year before the 2010 BP oil catastrophe. In the first years after the catastrophe, he said, the turtle deaths spiked at 200 to 300 a year.
Dolphins are at the top of the marine food chain. Solangi said they are a harbinger of what’s to come for humans. He hopes IMMS can keep the melon-headed whale alive, tag him and return him to the ocean.
IMMS rehabilitated two pygmy killer whales found two years ago stranded in Waveland. The pygmy whales swam to the Mississippi Canyon, about 100 miles offshore from Louisiana in deep Gulf water. Solangi said scientists also learned that the pygmy whales are nocturnal and feed on animals on the ocean floor.