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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 28, 2002

Volunteers race to save stranded baby dolphin

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

A contingent of federal, state, county, military and civilian rescuers gave up their Christmas reverie to spend the day and night saving a stranded 4-month-old, 30-pound spotted dolphin at Poka'i Bay.

Marlee Breese, left, vice president of Hawaiian Island Stranding and Response Group, and volunteer Stephanie Vlachos feed a formula of fish, oil and vitamins to a stranded baby dolphin at the Marine Corps base at Kane'ohe.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

The female is being monitored in a tank at the Marine Corps base at Kane'ohe. It was active and alert yesterday and doing well under the circumstances, veterinarian Robert Braun said.

Braun cautioned that few baby dolphins survive after being stranded, but a team of rescuers has been working around the clock to save the animal.

"Nobody got near their Christmas dinner," Braun said yesterday, moments after he tube-fed the dolphin. Some rescuers did not have a bite to eat until around 11 p.m., when Braun's wife brought in an emergency batch of turkey sandwiches on whole-grain bread.

The dolphin's feeding formula is a mixture of fish fillets, powdered milk and oil with vitamins and minerals every two hours.

"At this point, the animal looks like she's doing pretty well," said biologist Marlee Breese. "But the fact that this animal got separated from its mother and from its group — because they are very social animals — is not good."

The rescue involved the Marines, state conservation officers, military and county lifeguards, civilian swimmers, the University of Hawai'i marine mammal research lab and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The core team was made up of members of the nonprofit Hawaiian Islands Stranding and Response Group, of which Braun is president. More than a dozen people were involved in all.

The drama began Christmas morning, when Robert Rushforth, state division conservation resources officer, got a call from divers who said they had seen what appeared to be an injured dolphin.

Rushforth contacted the National Marine Fisheries Service, which told him to keep an eye on the animal.

As the morning progressed, Rushforth noticed the animal was growing weaker and swimming in small circles.

"I'm no expert, but I called for help," Rushforth said.

That's when Margaret Akamine, protected species program coordinator for NOAA in the Pacific, dropped everything and drove to Poka'i Bay.

Akamine determined that the dolphin had become separated from its pod and had no chance of survival without human assistance.

Generally in these cases, she said, the animal has a physical ailment that prevents it from keeping up with the group, or has become disoriented and confused because its mother was killed.

Braun, Breese and others arrived later with a stretcher and rescue equipment.

"There was a group of seven people from the beach — citizens, lifeguards and what-not — and we all formed a circle around the dolphin and slowly closed in and grabbed it," Braun said.

The animal was placed on a stretcher and carried to shore, then put in the back of a gray Ford 4X4 truck, sedated and immediately transferred to Kane'ohe.

Akamine said she had no idea how long the dolphin would remain at the Marine base. If it lives, it may not be capable of adapting to the wild, she said, and its fate would have to be decided.

For now, the team is focused on keeping the dolphin alive.

"We're cautiously optimistic," she said.