August 29, 2005

Baby Dolphin Down

Last vignette from our Costa Rican trip:

It was yet another guided motorboat search for dolphins and whales. Really we’d have preferred to snorkel that afternoon, but the search was included with the snorkeling expedition. Just as we were getting deeply bored, we sighted our first and only dolphin of the day: it was a juvenile, about a meter long, a pantropical spotted dolphin but too young to have spots. We followed it slowly for a minute or so and it tried to evade us, but it didn’t do a very good job – it didn’t stay submerged for more than a few seconds. And we were puzzled that no other dolphins were nearby. What was a juvenile doing alone?

Soon our boat driver realized that the dolphin was ill or injured. It listed as it swam, breathing shallowly. The driver, a young man named Junior, borrowed my fins and tried to capture and aid the dolphin, but it kept evading him. Eventually Junior was able to swim under the dolphin, and he pulled away a length of heavy black commercial fishing line about 30 feet long and tossed it into the boat.

But the dolphin still listed, and did not swim away. Junior returned to the water and a second man from the boat, a young Spaniard on a snorkeling vacation, joined him. Together, they caught the dolphin – which surprised me, I had thought a dolphin could have easily outswum them – and heaved it into the boat for examination. We saw that it was still tightly bound in fishing line, the line cinching its glossy gray hide, and it was bleeding from its mouth, where a big metal hook was stuck sideways.

No one on the boat had a knife. First someone tried cutting the remaining line with a key, but then Susan remembered she had a nail clipper. Someone cut the line with that and Junior yanked the hook out of the dolphin’s mouth. Blood and water sloshed in the bottom of the boat.

Junior and the Spaniard gently lowered the baby dolphin into the sea and held it in a sling of human arms for several minutes, but its breath was getting feebler. When they let it go, it swam a few meters and then sank. It had probably exhausted its last energy trying to escape its rescuers.

Junior said it had probably spent days caught in the line. Then he began bailing out the reddened water.