by Barbara Hobbs
This morning, for the first time, I think that I finally understand how parents feel when their kids go off to college, or get married or simply move out and get places of their own. The air seems different, nothing feels quite right; it’s as if some subtle unseen shift has occurred and you have been left behind. Perhaps an explanation is in order as to how I came to feel this way.
On March 2, 2005, seventy rough-toothed dolphins stranded on a beach in Marathon, a town in the central Florida Keys. Too weak to support themselves in open water, they did what marine mammals often do, they moved into shallow water so that they would not drown, so that they could continue to breathe through the blowholes in the tops of their heads. In an attempt to remain upright, many became stuck in the sand and receding tide, some escaped into deeper, open water, a few died. Illness, trauma, a misstep while following prey, why they chose to strand was a mystery. What was obvious was that the forty remaining animals needed help, and fortunately many people were there to lend their helping hands. The Marine Animal Rescue Society was one of the first responders to this crisis.
As a trained rescue team volunteer I soon received the call to assist in any way that I could. And that is how I came to be involved with the two dolphins that we, as a Society, were entrusted with to rehabilitate at a site on Key Biscayne. A male and a female, their names were Notch and Naia. Notch got his name because there was an obvious chunk missing out of his dorsal fin, and Naia got her pretty name because she was, well, pretty. Almost nine feet long and 350 – 400 lbs. each, they weren’t small, but they were sick. Both were transferred by truck to our large portable tank in the parking lot of a local fisheries building.
Almost immediately, our gypsy camp began to take shape. Tents to sleep in, and picnic tables covered with baskets of mosquito repellent, sunscreen and shift logs appeared. Parked under a sea grape tree, whose lower branches were concealed under an ever-changing array of colorful drying wetsuits, was our small white “fish trailer,” complete with a refrigerator full of frozen capelin and squid and a sink with extremely hot water that we used to thaw the many pounds of fish that the animals needed everyday. Pill crushers, rubber tubes and funnels for the fish gruel that they ate those first few days, surgical gloves, buckets, disinfectant and bulletin boards with medication lists and veterinarians’ cell phone numbers were the fabric of our lives. PVC pipe and extension cords crisscrossed our site; electricity was needed to cool the refrigerator, to run the pool pumps and power the spotlights that we needed at night to see the water, the animals and each other as we maintained our twenty-four hour vigils. In four-hour shifts of six or so volunteers, we went about the business of trying to simply keep these animals alive.
The press arrived; they loved the “feel-good” nature of this story, and soon the donations began to roll in. It seemed as if everyone wished us well and wanted us to succeed. Veterinarians and physicians donated their time and medicine and equipment. We received pizzas, coffee, tea and water by the gallon, fancy box lunches from numerous restaurants and hotels – food to feed the army of volunteers and food that we tried to keep from being carried off into the night by the persistent and very dexterous raccoons. One morning as I finished up an overnight shift, I found my messenger bag halfway across the field behind our site, dragged there and unzipped by the little bandits. A shredded plastic bag was all that remained of my snack of almonds. Caching and weighting down the lids of the trash cans and coolers became the order of the day. The generosity of the community was extraordinary. A local crane company donated a few hours of time and a full cadre of workers to help us lift the dolphins out of the tank for their ultrasounds, ultrasounds that were being done on a $400,000.00 electrocardiogram machine that had, in turn, been loaned to us for the afternoon by a local hospital. Cardiologists and veterinarians crowded around the dolphins as they were lifted from the tank, and the looks of utter concentration on their faces as they studied the ultrasound images were powerful and focused.
For some, the experience of working with these animals was spiritual, for others, purely scientific; for many of us I think that it was probably a little bit of both. We all became very personally involved with Notch and Naia. For myself, I can say only that I felt privileged and grateful for the opportunity to interact with these two animals in a way that neither of us could have ever predicted. That our worlds could have intersected like this filled me with amazement every time I was with them. I always worked the 2:00 am to 6:00 am shift because that one was a hard shift to fill. There are advantages to being self-employed – I could always sleep in the next morning. Coming upon the site at night, as I did for my first shift, it appeared as a stage set – all bright light and shadows, with torches lit to keep away the mosquitoes. Instead, closer examination revealed a hospital zone.
The first week that the dolphins were with us they were still too weak to swim for very long on their own. Our job was to “walk” them around the tank so that they could rest, conserve a little energy and hopefully, grow a little stronger. Although I had trained to do this, I was still a bit nervous that first night. But at 2:00 am, dressed in two wetsuits, rubber booties and a wool cap, with my fingers tucked safely in my armpits where they would not be mistaken for squid, I dropped into the tank of cold water and began my first night with Notch and Naia. It was hard to see into the water and as two large, dark forms brushed past me, exhaling loudly, I pressed myself up against the side of the tank so as not to get head-butted or nipped. There was a high-pitched little keening sound, like seagulls, a twittering noise that made me look up questioning why gulls would be awake in the middle of the night. It was the dolphins, they were talking and clicking to each other. After a few minutes I relaxed and allowed myself to breathe. Another woman and I were the two volunteers in the tank on this shift and we took turns “walking” the dolphins. My turn came when Naia stopped in front of me and waited. Right hand on the dorsal fin, left hand on the front edge of her pectoral fin, gently, softly, just as I had been trained, I started to slowly move around the tank, while the other volunteer shadowed us with Notch.
And then I had one of those moments, the kind of moment that brings you up short and leaves you dumbstruck and smiling and just totally in awe of it all. I was concentrating so hard on doing everything right, on not hurting Naia, that I didn’t realize that my left hand had slipped off her pectoral fin and down onto the center of her chest. Under the palm of my left hand, I could feel Naia’s heart beating. Her heart. In my hand. I was in a tank of water in the middle of the night with a wild dolphin who was in a totally alien environment and she was calm and quiet and letting me touch her and help her breathe and move; and through her smooth, warm, rubbery skin, I could feel her beating heart. My heart, meanwhile, had completely left my body and was soaring around somewhere over my head. We continued this dance until daybreak, when the herons, egrets and hawks began to fly over the tank and herald the dawn. Blessedly, the dawn also heralded the end of the giant blood-sucking mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Not a bad first night.
Over the next few weeks the dolphins got stronger and we no longer needed to be in the tank; they now were feisty enough that we were getting nipped if we tried to be in there with them. They could have hurt us if they had really wanted to, they were big animals. But the fact is that no one was seriously hurt by either Naia or Notch. Both animals would scare us, would appear to be failing health-wise, first Naia, then Notch, but both would rally and strengthen. Every day we monitored and logged their behavior, logged their food and medicine intake and counted their respirations. I learned how to stuff pills in a fish, became adept at hurling large dead squid to the hungry dolphins. I also discovered that dolphins feel the same way about squid as we do about chocolate. There was no doubt about it, they were getting stronger and stronger. Soon they could be released.
Meanwhile, at the locations where the other dolphins had been sent, the news was not so good. Out of the original forty dolphins, fewer than fifteen were still alive. But Naia and Notch were among the survivors. Shortly before their release, Notch was fitted with a satellite tracking device, donated to us by The National Aquarium in Baltimore. We had only one device and two dolphins, so the decision was made to attach it to the male’s dorsal fin, figuring that he would continue to pursue the female once they were both set free.
My last shift with them came two days before we set them free. The remarkable thing that I remember about those last two days is that both Naia and Notch were swimming with their eyes wide open. They were looking long and hard at each one of us. Those first few weeks that they were in the tank they had had their eyes squinched closed tight. Hey, I think that I would have, too; I can’t imagine how alien every single thing must have seemed to them. But those last two days were different. Their eyes and our eyes were open and communicating; it was as if they were trying to commit all our faces to memory. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that I spent quite a long time looking into their eyes and just smiling. I gave them my little lecture about staying together, and staying away from the container ships in the shipping lanes, and being careful about what they ate. I was going to miss seeing them and hearing their little birdsongs and clicks and looking into their beautiful dark eyes. As I walked out of the parking lot after my last shift, I knew that the next time that I saw the dolphins the circumstances would be very different; the time had come for us to give the dolphins back to their world.
A morbilli virus threat and then the threat of unfavorable sea conditions would cause their release date to be rescheduled twice. But finally, on the morning of April 20th, the release preparations were set in motion. About forty volunteers, some accompanied by their families, met at a marina in Miami Beach to board the “Reward,” the appropriately-named charter boat that was to take us to our rendezvous point with the dolphins, ten miles offshore. The mood was upbeat; people were happy, passing out leis and taking photos of each other while we waited to depart. The appearance of a bottlenose dolphin seen swimming near the boat was taken as a very good omen for the day ahead. Meanwhile, Notch and Naia were having a rather more eventful morning. First they were slid onto stretchers and removed from the tank that they had called home for the past seven weeks, then placed side by side into the back of a pickup truck for a quick ride to the other side of the Key, where they were carried onto a jetty and carefully loaded onto a waiting Coast Guard vessel. Veterinarians, marine biologists, Coast Guard personnel, Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission officers and Marine Animal Rescue Society members were quickly aboard and they were off. In two hours time they would be at the rendezvous site. Accompanying them on this final leg were Key Biscayne and Miami Metro Dade marine patrol vessels, as well as a helicopter and a small boat filled with members of the media. Our little “stars” were about to make their curtain call.
All I can say about the release is that you really had to want to be there that day; four to six foot seas and fifteen knot winds did not make for an easy journey on any of the vessels. The majority of the people on both the release boat and the volunteer boat came back to the dock significantly lighter than when they left earlier that same morning. But I think that almost all of them would say that it had been worth it. I’m told that Notch and Naia kept up quite a dialogue, clicking and squeaking, first in the back of the truck, and later in the boat, as their journey brought them ever closer to their home. The rendezvous spot found Notch still vocalizing and Naia quiet and trembling. The actual release happened so fast that it was very difficult to see. The animals were shrouded in so much protective foam padding and surrounded by so many people that, at best, all you saw was a quick flash of grey shooting into the choppy water. Notch went first, followed by Naia off the opposite side of the boat.
Their entrances into the sea were recorded by an underwater photographer who earlier had slipped into the water to record the release. His film, that we would have an opportunity to view later that same day, would cause us all to gasp and smile in wonder at the beauty, grace and sheer size of these two animals that we had come to care about so very much. After reuniting in the water, they swam quite near the release boat for a few minutes, their side-by-side dorsal fins visible to us from the volunteer boat. Then they began to easily and quickly pull away from all of the assembled vessels. The helicopter would maintain a visual sighting for about ten minutes, and then a deep dive by Notch and Naia would leave us with nothing to look at but miles of unbroken sea. They were gone. My tears had come days earlier, when I allowed my mind to linger on the fact that I would probably never see these animals again. But this day, all I could do was smile and shake my head at the wonder of it all. They were going home, our job was done. The rest is up to them.
To Notch and Naia I have but one wish: good luck and Godspeed.
A postscript: As I finished writing this on Monday, April 25, I was told that Notch (and presumably, Naia) were tracked sixty miles off the coast of Florida near Jacksonville, in 3,000 feet of water. May they both have long and healthy lives.
And now, my modest little haiku, or some would say, my “hai-coon”:
O, little bandit
cloaked in fur,
is that my bag
in your tiny hands?
And finally, there is one more way to look at this whole experience. Maybe these dolphins weren’t so different from the many other tourists who have come our way, carried here on the wind and the waves. Blame it on youth and inexperience, or the headiness of the tropical surroundings, these crazy kids ate something strange or maybe drank too much and woke up the next morning on a beach, naked and surrounded by strangers. Nursed back to health by the love and care of this diverse community, they then left Miami with a newfound appreciation for calamari, some new tattoos and a few piercings as a reminders of the exciting time that they spent in the Magic City
Who really knows…
April 20, 2005
Barbara L. Hobbs
I will leave you with one of my favorite quotations. It seems entirely appropriate at this time.
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken a form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
From “The Outermost House” by Henry Beston, 1928.