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Don Lewis, Massachusetts Audubon Society,
Fox Island Wildlife Management Area

Atlantic White-Sided Dolphins
Strand in Loagy Bay — 16 March

A pod of white-sided dolphins stranded in Loagy Bay off Blackfish Creek in South Wellfleet on 16 March.  Despite heroic efforts by local residents and the Cape Cod Mammal Stranding Network, most of the animals were lost by the next morning.  This stranding marks the second in two weeks.  On 5 March more than a dozen white-sided dolphins were beached by the dropping low tide in Herring River at the northwest corner of Wellfleet Harbor.  In that case, seven of the animals were rescued and returned to the open sea.

The incident began at noon when a resident noticed dolphins swimming precariously close to the marsh shoreline in his backyard, which faces Loagy Bay.  He ran across the street to Connemara Cottage to get me to assess the situation.  Five white-sided dolphins, ranging in size from ~ 200 to ~ 400 pounds, had nosed into the shallow marsh grass and were resting on the bottom as the tide approached flood.

On the left were three dolphins, one of which — the largest — seemed least active and most in distress.  The others appeared to float relatively freely, shifting positions and occasionally nuzzling the larger dolphin, who could be heard clicking plaintively.

On the right was a large dolphin and a much smaller animal.  The bigger one lay its snout on the marsh grass while the rest of its body floated in a deeper depression.  The little one was quite active and constantly nudged its companion.

About 150 feet off shore another three dolphins patrolled back and forth, clicking in response to the beached animals.  As tide reached maximum flood, the large and distressed dolphin was freed.  She kicked off and swam toward deeper water and was quickly followed by the other four.  The entire pod reformed and began swimming back and forth in Loagy Bay.

The entrance to Loagy Bay from Blackfish Creek is quite tricky and the animals didn’t seem able to find their way to freedom.  When the Cape Cod Mammal Stranding Network reached the scene, they launched a power boat with pinger and herded the pod back in Blackfish Creek and finally into Wellfleet Bay.  They were unsuccessful, though, in driving the dolphins into the safe and deeper waters of the open sea.  As sun set on the 16th, the dolphins were swimming together off Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet Harbor.  By the next morning, four dead animals were discovered scattered along the beach and three more were found so badly distressed they had to be euthanized.

Wellfleet Harbor can be a dangerous place for marine mammals.  Its 15-foot tidal swings and oozy bottom make a trap for any large animal careless enough to linger in its estuaries as the tide begins to fall.  In this case, all the conditions were right and the tidal timing was perfect.  Yet, sadly, the outcome proved unsuccessful.