VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.—On a hot Tuesday morning in early September two women north of 65-years-old, clad in shorts and matching Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center Stranding Response Program team T-shirts, are readying a massive, white truck for about 90 kilograms of dead dolphin.
They are part of a fleet of about 60 volunteers who spend their spare time retrieving the remains of ailing or dead creatures along the state’s coast. They typically net a mix of sea turtles and dolphins. Since July, however, their dolphin workload has been on the upswing as hundreds stranded unexpectedly.
From New York State to North Carolina the bodies of 553 bottlenose dolphins have washed ashore in the past few months. Virginia has seen the highest death count, with more than 250 fatalities. Still more dolphins may have died but been lost to the deep blue. An RNA virus related to measles is believed to be the likely dolphin killer.
Before these ailing dolphins end up on the shoreline they are typically wandering alone, perhaps listing to one side or failing to lift their heads completely when they surface to breathe. Fisherman have reported seeing emaciated dolphins, seemingly disoriented and swimming in circles.
For researchers trying to understand the reasons for the dolphin strandings, necropsies, genetic analyses and other tests are essential. And it takes a band of volunteers to do the dirty work. On this particular retrieval, I accompany Shirley Croft, 71, who has been part of the Stranding Team for four years, and Paula Demosthenes, 66, who joined after retiring from her teaching job a decade ago. They methodically load the truck bed with pairs of thick, rubber boots, along with a net, wheelbarrow and casket-shaped metal stretcher. The women also ensure the vehicle is loaded up with Purell as they prepare to retrieve a dead dolphin from a private beach in Hampton, Va. The truck is also stocked with their other tools for the day: latex gloves, forms, clipboards and a camera.
>>View a slide show of the retrieval and necropsy. (Warning: some images are graphic.)
But soon enough a hiccup in their plan became apparent: On arriving at the beach they couldn’t find the dolphin. The local resident who called the animal in had given only an approximate address. Moreover, the women could not find an access point to bring their truck onto the beach—meaning they might have to drag the dead dolphin a long way under the blistering sun, using nothing but their net and a small wheelbarrow. They called the resident back and asked him for more information, repeatedly circling the neighborhood and peering between the houses for signs of access or a resident in the area, but with no luck. Finally, they parked the truck at the end of a block and struck out on foot, locating the dolphin.
But now they had to move quickly. The advancing tide was already flipping the body over and could wash it back out to sea. Croft stayed to watch over the corpse, poised to try to move it if necessary—while Demosthenes went to fetch the wheelbarrow and their gear.
After repeated shimmying the too-small wheelbarrow, they finally loaded the dolphin (a feat that usually requires enlisting a passerby on the beach, and that day involved me) and rolled it back to their truck. Then they eyed its high bed and the dolphin hanging out of their wheelbarrow: How would they load him into the truck? Croft took a knife and bored a hole into its dorsal fin and then threaded a hook from the car through it, employing the truck’s pulley system to lift the carcass into the bed of the truck.
The whole process of driving to the site, fetching the dolphin and depositing him back at the Virginia Aquarium’s Marine Animal Care Center was the work of a long afternoon. At the peak of the Virginia die-off this summer, 17 dead dolphins washed up in one day—requiring volunteers to work overtime. Although they pick up dead marine life, the Stranding Teams should not be seen as garbage collectors, clearing the beach of rubbish. Their collection work is important, it enables the first stage of scientific research.