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Dolphin hospital opens on 6A in Orleans

IFAW veterinarian Sarah Sharp treats a dolphin in a custom-built dolphin transport truck.
Andrea Spence / IFAW
IFAW veterinarian Sarah Sharp treats a dolphin in a custom-built dolphin transport truck.

The first dolphin rescue hospital north of Florida is opening up in a former auto supply shop on Route 6A in Orleans.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare — or IFAW — plans to initially treat roughly 12 stranded common dolphins, harbor porpoises, and broad-sided dolphins at the facility each year. The team is prepared to start taking patients as soon as next week.

Until now, the IFAW team has worked out of a custom-built dolphin transport van outfitted with soft foam mats and a mini clinic. Before that, they operated a converted landscaping truck. In those vehicles, the rescue team only had a few hours to treat stranded animals.

“It's always been heartbreaking for me to put animals back out that I really feel like only have a 50/50 chance of survival,” said Sarah Sharp, a veterinarian for IFAW. “So this will just give us a much longer period of time to be able to understand what's going on with the animals, provide them better treatments, and hopefully improve their chance of survival once we put them back in the ocean.” 

The primary pool at IFAW's Dolphin Rescue Center has a robust filtration system.
Andrea Spence / IFAW
The primary pool at IFAW's Dolphin Rescue Center has a robust filtration system.

The facility, tucked next to a children’s clothing shop and a gas station, now boasts of two 15-foot-wide medical pools and a complete veterinary lab stocked with microscopes, an x-ray machine, and blood machines.

“So we'll be able to see the red blood cells and white blood cells, as well as some chemistry analytes, as well,” she said.

There’s also a water-resistant ultrasound, a freezer full of fish, and a blender to make food for animals that need to be on a liquid diet.

“We'll bring out the fish smoothies and get them the nutrition that they need,” Sharp said.

They’ll be able to administer fluids and medication to help deal with infections like pneumonia, parasites, stress, shock, and more.

“It’ll be an intensive care [unit],” she said. “So these animals are going to be monitored 24 hours a day while they're here. If they're really weak and having a hard time swimming, then we will have people in the water with them, supporting them so they can get to the surface to breathe until they're strong enough to swim around the pools on their own.”

A federal permit allows IFAW to treat the animals for up to four days. After that time, the choices are clear: release, ideally at Herring Cove in Provincetown, or, for animals that are likely to suffer in the wild, euthanasia.

Ultimately, the IFAW team believes this will give them a fighting chance to save more animals across a stretch of Cape Cod that’s been deemed the busiest place in the world for live dolphin strandings.

“We average about 70 live cetacean strandings a year,” said Brian Sharp, director of IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research program. “We have about 22 cases per year that would benefit from this short term care model.”

High stranding numbers are largely caused by the Cape’s unique geography.

“We're that sandy hook that sticks out in the ocean," he said. "And the difference between our high and low tides is nine foot, sometimes 12 foot, depending on the time of the lunar cycle. What that does – on these long sloping beaches that you see in Brewster and Dennis – [is create] a mile of new beach every six hours that really creates the perfect place for dolphins to strand, unfortunately.”

Brian Sharp stands in the hospital's front room where the public will be invited to watch a live stream of the dolphins' care.
Eve Zuckoff
Brian Sharp stands in the hospital's front room where the public will be invited to watch a live stream of the dolphins' care.

The hospital can also serve as a short term holding site, when weather makes it difficult to release healthy dolphins. Sharp said that’s a major benefit as climate change is expected to bring more intense and frequent storms to the region.

“When we have dolphins that strand in the middle of nor'easters,” he said, “it makes it dangerous for the staff, and it makes it potentially dangerous for the dolphins to be released into storms like that.”

Saving dolphins is the primary motive for building what Brian Sharp called IFAW’s “missing piece of the puzzle.” But the IFAW team will also be able to share findings about dolphin health and wellness with the scientific community, and with Cape Codders.

“We’ll have a live feed of these pools so people can view what's going on,” Brian Sharp said, “view the animal as it's being supported.”

People will be able to watch the feed from the hospital’s front room beginning in October, at 115 Route 6A, Orleans MA, 02653, just before the winter stranding season begins.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.