Marine Mammal Emergencies has been busy since early fall, especially with incidents involving live stranded dolphins. On September 28, six white-sided dolphins were trapped in a shallow bay in Lamèque, New Brunswick. The Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network closely monitored the event and participated in discussions regarding response plans. One dolphin died, while the others returned to sea after several attempts lasting over a week. In the aftermath of a major storm in the Magdalen Islands, one dolphin was found stranded alive on Tuesday near Havre-aux-Maisons. Deemed to be in poor state of health, the animal was euthanized. On October 9, another stranding occurred on Anticosti Island, where three female white-sided dolphins beached themselves.

What follows is the colourful tale of a volunteer who participated in the attempt to release the animals back into the water that day.

Quiet Sunday

Lots of time to read the papers before the arrival of the Bella (Translator’s note: the Bella Desgagnés, a cargo and passenger carrier): La Presse+, Le Devoir from yesterday, and my new application of the Courrier International… The sun is back this morning, as is the wind. Tomorrow’s a holiday, so we’ll just laze around for a few hours!

If it weren’t for this duck splashing around at mid-reef, sending water flying everywhere. This isn’t just a simple water bath, and I begin to suspect that it’s something even juicier! But we’re not in the mating season, my goodness!! I finally get up and take a look through the spotting scope; ahhh, a shark fin!?… in such shallow water?… in front of the house? But alas, the fin is accompanied by a horizontal tail, so it’s either a dolphin or a porpoise.

I go upstairs to take some photos. The hapless white-sided dolphin was doing its best to free itself, but its belly was likely scraping the sand and it wasn’t moving anywhere, just squirming around a lot. Flicks of the tail, twists of the body, it turns onto its side… being stranded is an awful predicament for a marine mammal. In the process of taking pictures, I wound up noticing a second individual lying motionless, several dozen metres to the right. Well, now here we are with 2 beached dolphins.

My spouse Danièle contacted Marine Mammal Emergencies and reported the situation. While I’m busing sending photos and videos, she yells out that she sees a third animal! Good Lord. Once she’s received instructions from Mélissa at the Call Centre and spoken with Robert Michaud, and because Danièle has a good reputation, she has permission to organize a rescue operation. Meanwhile, Maxime (MFFP agent) has arrived. Together with Martine and Claude, we go to see the dolphins, where we are joined by Lyne…

© Gaétan (Alex) Laprise
© Gaétan (Alex) Laprise

Prompt actions must be taken, including covering the caudal portion with sheets and spraying it down. When we get to the third animal a bit farther away, it is dead. Great… yet another reason to move swiftly to transport the others. We figure that being that there are six of us, we’ll have no problem making a stretcher with tarps and hoisting them into a truck. The animals are between 2.25 and 2.35 metres long. They probably weigh in the range of 100-150 kilos, so very manoeuvrable. By the time we get back from picking up the material, the Bella has docked and begun unloading its containers. No problem, says Maxime, who reassures us that with a game warden pickup and flashing lights, they’ll let us through. Aimée joins the group and applies the same method for transporting a wounded person; we build a makeshift stretcher and all six of us lift in unison. 1-2-3, lift!, and up into the truck they go. Tails first; this way they’ll be easier to take out.

© Gaétan (Alex) Laprise
© Gaétan (Alex) Laprise

We quickly load the 2 survivors and transport them to the boat launch. Word gets around quickly in Port-Menier; already several people are waiting there. We lower the first one into the water, and it immediately begins twitching its tail. Martine and Aimée hold it still while we bring the second one down. This one is calmer. As per recommendations, we hold them side by side in the water for several minutes. When the first one (let’s call it #1, and not Huguette as someone else suggested!) seems to be ready, we let it go. It swims away, turns to the side, comes back and then swims awkwardly behind the dock and into the bay, sometimes swimming correctly, sometimes on its side. Not very encouraging. The second one (#2), which appeared to be in worse shape, held out a little longer. Once released, it immediately and convincingly swims away and is soon joined by a fellow dolphin 50-75 m from the boat launch.

Meanwhile, #1 continues to flounder along. We return to the house before going back to pick up the last dolphin. Danièle will take photos and measurements before disposing of it. About fifteen minutes later, Lyne saw a dolphin join #1 before losing sight of them swimming together. If we don’t find it on shore in the next few days, then we can conclude that it has regained its strength and was able to return to sea. And they lived happily ever after… But no, there’s no Hollywood ending here! Sunday night, two dolphins are found beached at the back of the bay, opposite Tony’s place. They died there. When we first went to see them, and one of the three animals was already dead, I told myself that things were not looking good. But as we were releasing them back into the water, despite #1 who was swimming so clumsily, I had newfound hope that they would triumph in the end. But reality is not always like a Walt Disney movie. Even if life sometimes hangs on, the end is often quite disheartening. And reality: inescapable and dispiriting.

Dauphins à flancs blancs © Marine Animal Response Society (MARS)
White-sided dolphins © Marine Animal Response Society (MARS)

Score: Reality: 3, Dolphins: 0. In order to educate ourselves, we will enquire with the GREMM as to what might cause dolphins to become stranded in a place like Ellis Bay. And if this cause is just a precursor to an imminent death. What percentage of stranded dolphins manage to survive? Inevitability is far too complicated a word to describe “what should happen” whatever we do. But we soldier on. Because if we have to give up hope, too, please tell me what will be left! Happy (belated) Thanksgiving weekend!

Gaétan (Alex) Laprise

To learn more:

On Whales Online:

What are Mass Strandings and What Causes Them?

Are Human Activities Responsible for Whale Strandings? (in French)

In the media:

Radio interview on CILE-FM in Havre Saint-Pierre (in French) with Josiane Cabana, spokesperson for the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network on the dolphins found beached on Anticosti Island.

The account of the stranded dolphins in Lamèque, New Brunswick by the Marine Animal Response Society (on Facebook) with photos.

A Radio-Canada interview with Robert Michaud (in French), coordinator of the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network, who explains the stranded dolphin situation in New Brunswick.

Marine Mammal Emergencies - 14/10/2016

Josiane Cabana

Josiane Cabana served as Director for the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network call centre from 2011 to 2018. When she’s not responding to cases of dead or vulnerable marine mammals, she likes to take the time to educate local residents on the threats faced by these animals. Biologist by training, she has been involved with the GREMM for more than 15 years, and always with the same undying passion!

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