JANUARY 2019 • PAGE 26 & 27


The Rescue of a Baby Dolphin in Antigua
By Martha Watkins Gilkes

In the early hours of the morning of January 4, 2019, a small fin was spotted in the surf line on an Antiguan beach. Julie Esty, a local resident, was walking her dog on Crawl Bay Beach inside the larger Willoughby Bay. On closer inspection, Julie realized that a very small baby dolphin was struggling in the water, attempting to beach. It turned out she was only three feet long and weighed 30 pounds.

I was informed of the emergency soon after, and went to the location hoping to help. In becoming involved in what turned into a marine mammal rescue, I had no idea of the rocky road to follow, and how controversial it would become on moral and ethical fronts, and the emotions a baby dolphin would unleash for so many.

Fellow Antiguan conservationists gathered, along with a marine biology student from the USA. Information was posted on the Facebook page, Antigua & Barbuda Whale and Dolphin Network. The dolphin was unlike any others I had seen, even in a lifetime of scuba diving and having encountered dolphins all over the world. I photographed the dolphin on the surface and under the water, and sent out photos to various experts.

Baby dolphin, attempting to strand, literally swam into our arms.

Baby dolphin, attempting to strand, literally swam into our arms.

The baby dolphin was slowly swimming along the waterfront, sometimes very close to the rocky shoreline with breaking waves, which could have been fatal had the dolphin been washed ashore. It appeared that the dolphin was trying to beach itself. Although it was swimming, it was not behaving normally, and swam almost directly into the arms of one of the observers in three feet of water. It seemed it was seeking help.

A group of volunteers took a boat out into the bay and the surrounding waters looking for a dolphin pod or the mother. There was no success in finding other dolphins, so it was assumed that the baby dolphin had lost, or had become separated from the pod and its mother, or perhaps the mother had been killed.
A member of the group contacted the Antigua Government Fisheries Department and it became involved in the process. The owner of Stingray City, an attraction that provides for feeding stingrays and in-water encounters for tourists, was contacted.

Discussions were held about building a “seapen” to secure the dolphin as a first step, but this never happened. The Marine Mammal rescue line out of the University of Florida was called by the marine biology student, and they contacted the Inter American University in Bayamon, Puerto Rico,
and its founder, Dr. Tony Mignucci. (http://manatipr.org)

Dr. Mignucci had assisted Antigua in the rescue of a hooded Arctic seal in 2001, so I had worked with him before. He actually came to Antigua and took the young seal to his rehab facility. (https://stormcarib.com/reports/2002/pdf00000.pdf)

Dr. Mignucci immediately called me from San Juan and made the offer to come the following day to help with the rescue and to bring emergency supplies. After arrival, Dr. Mignucci confirmed the dolphin was a pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata), and determined it was around six months old. The young dolphin would still be nursing from its mother so it would require tube feeding every three hours.

He was joined by Marine Mammal Veterinarian, Dr. Kelly O’Sullivan, who lent support and played a key role in the eventual move of the baby dolphin to St. Kitts. There was a home with a salt treated pool directly opposite the site where she was found, owned by the Esty family, and they kindly agreed to this being used as a “rescue tank,” never dreaming it would be an eleven day ordeal. The house was commandeered by an army of volunteers on site 24 hours a day to provide for the dolphin and support Dr. Mignucci and his team.
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San Juan vet assistants, Carla Rivera and Juan Orcera, assisting in dolphin care.
Vet assistant Carla Rivera with marine mammal veterinarian, Dr. Kelly O'Sullivan.
She required someone in the pool at all times as she sometimes sank to the bottom of the pool, and this required someone holding her up when she stopped swimming. It was a major operation caring for baby ANANI (named by the volunteers who cared for her). Her name comes from the Arawack Indians, the early settlers of Antigua, and means WATER FLOWER. The response of caring souls was overwhelming, and the nearby St. James Club Hotel offered to cater meals twice a day for the volunteer group.

The team started researching what to do moving forward as it was realized we did not have the facility or resources to care for her long term. Many experts were consulted, including Ric O’Barry and Louie Psihoyos of The Cove documentary, Dr. Denise Herzing and Dr. Naomi Rose, along with the veterinary team on site. Originally, it was hoped and planned that Dr. Mignucci would take her to his rehab facility in San Juan, but due to the U.S. government shutdown, the necessary paperwork could not be obtained.

We had to look closer to home, and, in nearby St. Kitts, there was a swim-with-dolphins program with veterinarians and man power available. However, a number of the volunteers were against dolphins being held in captivity, and feared her fate would be 30 years in captivity if she had been released to this facility. There were great moral and ethical issues going on and some members of the group felt the best choice was to euthanize the dolphin. The Government Fisheries agreed that this may have been a good option before it was taken from the sea. Some in the group thought that it was still the most humane option given that the trauma and odds of survival were stacked so much against this six-month-old dolphin. However, others, myself included, felt we should give this baby dolphin as much of a chance as possible.

Assurances were given that the dolphin facility would not keep her, and, if she were able to be released, they would agree to her being set free in a pod of her own kind.

Contact was made with Dr. Denise Herzing, founder of The Wild Dolphin Project in the Bahamas (http://www.wilddolphinproject.org). I have been on research trips with Dr. Denise three times in the past and knew she was one of the top experts of stenella dolphins. She was encouraging, saying that if the baby could be raised to eat on her own, there was hope to set her free in a pod, and she offered to be involved in the process. The decision was made to transport the dolphin to nearby St. Kitts by boat, which was less intrusive than an airplane, and on Monday, January 14, eleven days after assuming her care, she was moved. Sadly, two days later, baby dolphin Anani died, with the x-rays showing she had pneumonia in her lungs. It was a hard blow for the nearly 50 volunteers and the vet team who had cared for this baby dolphin for, now, 13 days. But, much good came out of the short time of the interaction with the young dolphin. The camaraderie that formed among the volunteers was powerful, and it also showed the need for the Government of Antigua to put in place a protocol for such a thing happening again. The owners of the home used as base camp had house guests arrive, and one of the guests, Greg, a 23-year-old, had lost a leg in an accident, and when he entered the pool with the dolphin, the connection made was truly touching and inspiring, as if the baby dolphin sensed that he, too, had special needs. His life and his father’s were touched in a special way.

So, in spite of the hardships of the time of caring for the baby dolphin, and the $9,000 in expenses incurred, (which have now been covered by a GOFUNDME campaign), the effort was truly a unique one. In addition to giving the baby dolphin care during its time of crisis, many lives were touched by the experience.
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Carla Rivera bringing baby dolphin to transport to St. Kitts. Martha with Anani
Dr. Tony Mignucci and Carla Rivera administering blood test.
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Juan Orcera, vet assistant.
Hama Films documenting the rescue efforts. Greg and baby dolphin connecting.

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