Dolphin nursed back to health after oil spill

GULFPORT, Miss. — A dolphin found alive but stranded near Mobile Bay after the BP oil spill has survived his ordeal and is now learning to live in captivity.

Named Chance by the staff at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, he now lives at IMMS.

The young dolphin washed ashore in November 2011, a year when more dolphins than usual were dying — including infants and stillborn calves — and many observers were pointing to the spill as the cause.

At the time, researchers thought the injured young dolphin might offer important information as to why dolphins have been dying along the shores of the northern Gulf since winter 2010, and how the oil spill might have contributed.

The dolphin was tested, and the specimens shipped to NOAA to become part of the U.S. government’s case against BP. The results still haven’t been released.

Moby Solangi, president of IMMS, said he applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a permit to keep Chance and have him on public display.

The institute received permission last month.

The nonprofit IMMS responds to dolphin and sea turtle strandings, and has a research and education component, but also is an entertainment venue with hands-on displays of marine life, dolphin encounters and plans for dolphin shows.

With Chance, the institute now has four dolphins. Two are 30-year-old retirees from service in a Navy program and one is a young, deaf male.

During Chance’s first weeks at the institute, he was clinging to life, nervously swimming in circles in his climate-controlled hospital tank. He was dehydrated and bruised, with scrapes all over his body and parasites inside and out.

Last week, he was in a small tank taking commands from a trainer, popping up to see what was going on around him and learning to communicate in his new environment.

Solangi said when Chance was found, officials thought he was dead. That was about a year ago. The staff has worked to bring him back.

The institute has spent tens of thousands of dollars to save him and rehabilitate him.

Recovery has been a long process. But about a month ago, Chance was moved to the main pool.

“He’s still checking things out,” Solangi said. But he’s a quick learner and he’s starting to play a lot more, Solangi said.

“He’s being integrated with the other dolphins. And he’s getting hands-on attention from a trainer. Someday he will be a performer.

The public is welcome to see him now,” Solangi said. For a long time, he was in isolation.

Chance would not be able to survive in the wild, Solangi said. NOAA agreed. That’s why the permit was issued to allow him to stay in captivity.

He was too young when he was stranded. He still needed his mother and a group of dolphins to survive in the wild.

And he has an injury to his spine that would keep him from being able to travel long distances, something he would have to do in the wild, Solangi said.

Erin Fougeres, a marine mammal biologist and stranding program administrator for the Southeast Region, said at Chance’s age — between 2 and 4 years — he was not independent from his mother when he became stranded.

He had not learned to forage and survive. And social grouping at that age is important, she said.

He has a chronic medical condition, lesions on his bones and back, and he can’t swim as well as others, she said.

“He didn’t use his pectoral flippers at all,” she said. “He kept them against the side of his body.”

She said Chance had chronic mobility issues.

Solangi called him disabled.

Chance stranded dolphin still alive, a contrast to all the dead dolphins found in 2010 and 2011 in the northern Gulf.

Along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts, 275 died, Solangi said. In the year of the spill, there were 90. In 2011, it was 145, 60 percent of which were babies or aborted fetuses, he said. So far this year there have been 40.

The average annual dolphin deaths in these two states used to be closer to 30, he said.

But Fougeres said despite the information researchers may glean from Chance, no one dolphin can tell the whole story of the northern Gulf dolphin die-off.

More than 800 animals have become stranded during the Unusual Mortality Event that began in the winter before the oil spill and is still under investigation.

She said about 5 percent of the dolphins stranded during that time were alive. Many of the dead were too decomposed to take reliable tissue and blood samples.

All the test results are being evaluated, she said.

Nursing back to health dolphins that have stranded and keeping them for aquariums or marine life exhibits is a practice that has been in place for years.

The federal government evaluates each case and decides whether to issue a permit.

It has, in a way, taken the place of the live capture of healthy dolphins in U.S. waters.

A spokeswoman with the Gulf Restoration Network said it is preferable to live capture.

Russ Rector, head of the Dolphin Freedom Foundation and a former dolphin trainer, said he doesn’t agree with the practice. His group is a small nonprofit in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Rector said he’s afraid it’s about the money. Dolphins are an expensive commodity because laws governing them here are stricter.

And the way an animal is rehabilitated plays a big role in whether it becomes a pet or is retaught to survive in the wild. He said, “How can you say something is un-releasable unless you try?”