Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Trials of Castaway

The unsuccessful release of a pregnant Atlantic bottlenose dolphin last month has veterinarians and scientists around the country debating whether a drug used by a veterinarian with Mote Marine Laboratory should be banned for marine mammals.Rather than blaming Mote, the scientists hope the case will offer better ways to rehabilitate and release sick dolphins, something that is still rarely successful. In Florida an average of six rescued dolphins are returned to the wild ever year, even though there are 275 strandings a year."Our knowledge is so limited with these animals," said Mote's veterinarian, Charles Manire. "We're trying to learn about these things as we go. We're basically writing the books case by case."The rescue of the 500-pound dolphin, nicknamed Castaway, at first looked destined to be an uplifting tale of human intervention to save the life of a helpless sea animal.The pregnant dolphin was found beached at Castaway Cove near Vero Beach. Mote nursed Castaway to health and was set to release her into the ocean to give birth.But Castaway never made it back to the wild.After having an adverse reaction to a drug that was supposed to revive the sedated mammal as she was returned to the sea, Castaway was once again pulled to safety. Now deaf and unable to survive in the deep ocean, Castaway is being kept in a lagoon at the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo, waiting to give birth.She and her calf may end up at a facility like Sea World or Miami's Seaquarium for the rest of their lives.The case reveals the chasm that still exists in human understanding about dolphins, whose brain size and intelligence is often compared to humans. Manire said Castaway's case is likely to become fodder for academic seminars and scientific journals.The central question will be how the seemingly recovered dolphin suffered profound hearing loss and possibly neurological damage, and whether that occurred during the effort to release her.There is suspicion that the drug Romazicon, designed to reverse the effects of sedatives, could have crippled the dolphin. Because so few dolphins are released and even fewer are sedated before release, there's not enough science on the effects of the drug on marine mammals like dolphins and whales.Manire, Mote's top veterinarian, said Romazicon has been tested in humans and is considered safe, although known side effects are dizziness and vertigo, and can include temporary and even permanent hearing loss.Mote rescue workers last month attempted to release Castaway into the Atlantic Ocean, where she could give birth to her calf. It was essential to get her back to the deep sea, so that the mother could immediately begin teaching the calf to survive in the wild.Castaway was sedated and driven in a holding tank to Vero Beach. She was then given Romazicon to make her alert.But Manire immediately noticed Castaway wasn't swimming and that she acted "stoned." Tests show she is now deaf, but it is nearly impossible to know whether the drug caused her to go deaf, because her hearing was never tested before the attempted release.Hearing is critical to a dolphin's survival, and in this case, to Castaway's ability to teach her calf to survive in the wild, Manire said. Dolphins can't see well and use their hearing to find food through echolocation, a sort of sonar.Dolphins are social and tend to live in communities where communication is used in essential activities like navigating and identifying other animals, including predators.Blair Mase, the stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's southeast region, said the problems could come from a range of things, including a stroke during transportation or an adverse reaction to the drug.If scientists believe that the Romazicon caused the dolphin to go deaf, they could suspend its use in dolphin populations."We don't know if she had a reaction to the drug," Mase said. "She has limited neurological response. We're doing all we can to diagnose and treat her if we can."But Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer who established the Dolphin Freedom Foundation, said that Mote and the marine fisheries service shouldn't have approved drugs that haven't been tested in marine mammals.Rector is concerned that the Castaway and her calf will be kept in captivity even though they are deep-sea dolphins and that they will be used to raise funds for organizations like Mote and the Marine Mammal Conservancy. He said even naming the animal violates the way scientists should handle wild dolphins.He also believes that Mote should have brought the dolphin back to Sarasota so that the lab could continue the dolphin's rehabilitation and study.Mase said Castaway is not releasable now, but that if the hearing loss is temporary she could be OK'd for conditional release.If Castaway doesn't take care of her calf and continues to exhibit symptoms of neurological damage, she may be euthanized, Mase said. The calf, which can't be released without its mother, would then be sent to a facility such as Sea World that keeps captive dolphins.


delphina writes "A pregnant bottlenose dolphin is deaf and cannot be released into the ocean, a marine mammal expert said Friday.The dolphin, Castaway stranded off Vero Beach in November, but was deemed healthy enough for release Jan. 30, after convalescing at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. But instead of swimming offshore, she returned to the beach three times and was transported to the Keys."We've officially deemed the animal as unreleasable," said Blair Mase, a regional stranding coordinator for National Marine Fisheries Service. "Deafness and other central nervous system issues she has would prohibit her from functioning normally."Dolphins need to hear in order to utilize dolphin sonar. By listening to echoes of sounds they produce, dolphins locate objects and fish for food.Castaway will remain at the Marine Mammal Conservancy in the Florida Keys for at least nine months, before being relocated to a permanent care facility, Mase said.


After spending more than a month acclimating herself to a Keys rehabilitation facility, Castaway — the pregnant dolphin that stranded in Vero Beach's Castaway Cove last year — likely will give birth and stay there for at least another six months, marine mammal experts said Monday.A conference call between volunteers at the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo and federal officials last week resulted in a decision to never release the deaf, bottlenose dolphin — or her unborn calf — back into the wild, conservancy president Robert Lingenfelser said. Castaway, who experts tried to release unsuccessfully off Fort Pierce in January, and her calf eventually will end up in a public display facility for the rest of their lives. But it may be too close to full-term in her pregnancy to move her safely, he said."It'd be really foolish to transport her at this point," Lingenfelser said. "We all agree she's non-releasable."Although it is unclear whether a natural trauma or a negative reaction to drugs caused Castaway's deafness, experts said her lack of senses and inability to echolocate will make it impossible for her to survive in the wild and possibly take care of her calf properly.So, volunteers with the conservancy are building a 180-square-foot birthing pen in 8 feet of water in the Florida Bay that will allow them to assist with the delivery, which is expected in the next 40 to 60 days.Lingenfelser said there likely will be a video camera installed so the birth can be watched on the Internet."The calf looks healthy," he said. "If Castaway, because of her neurological deficits, doesn't take care of the calf, we'll have to."The mother and baby will likely remain at the conservancy for up to nine months.Federal officials have about a month to determine where they will be sent afterward. Lingenfelser said he's officially recommended Dolphins Plus, a licensed public display facility also in Key Largo that has helped with the rehabilitation.Meanwhile, Lingenfelser said he's begun a fundraising campaign for the volunteer- only nonprofit facility to care for Castaway and her calf, which could cost up to $200,000."We're preparing," he said. "This is going to get expensive."WANT TO HELP?The Marine Mammal Conservancy is raising money to care for Castaway and her calf.To donate or learn more, call (954) 242-4741 or log on to


The failed release really represented four attempts. The two drugs given to this dolphin were unnecessary for the few-hours trip across the state; the dolphin survived the initial stranding, rescue and transport to Mote with no drugs.The National Marine Fisheries Service requires dolphins to be drug-free for at least 14 days before release. Drugging any animal on the day of release makes no sense; these animals need a clear mind to survive in the wild! The resulting injury to this dolphin seems to be proof of that.After the four release failures, Mote's Dr. Charles Manire decided to send the dolphin to the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo instead of taking it back to Sarasota.Mote has a staff veterinarian and several rehabilitation experts; MMC has none, and is begging for money and volunteers with fliers at supermarkets and on roadside poles.Mote has no room now to take Castaway back because it rescued another dolphin and its pools are full. Yet Mote built a large, state-of-the art medical pool designed just for rehabbing dolphins. This pool is now closed to stranded dolphins because the laboratory has become a public-display facility. This pool was built with donors' money to rehabilitate dolphins -- not to have two on permanent display!Mote would seem to have violated the release document it filed with Marine Fisheries, asking for permission to release No. 303, because it dumped its problem on Key Largo.Mote needs to take 303 back and find out why a healthy pregnant dolphin that Marine Fisheries certified ready for release was found to be a neurologically damaged, deaf, unreleasable mess in five hours!Russ RectorThe writer founded the Dolphin Freedom Foundation in Fort Lauderdale.

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