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Stranded dolphins get round-the-clock care

Volunteers race against time to save imperiled marine mammals

From John Zarrella

Volunteers hand feed the dolphins herring stuffed with vitamins.
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Rescuers work around the clock to help save stranded dolphins.

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Key Largo (Florida)
Science and Technology

KEY LARGO, Florida (CNN) -- In early March an estimated 80 rough-toothed dolphins stranded themselves in the shallows off Marathon in the Florida Keys.

Rescue workers and volunteers worked nonstop to help as many as they could to return to deep water. Some dolphins made it. About two dozen died.

For 26 that clung to life there was only one chance for survival -- transfer to the Marine Mammal Conservancy rehabilitation facility on Key Largo, farther up the Keys from Marathon.

The dolphins were placed in a water pen where they have been given round-the-clock care by hundreds of volunteers who signed up for four-hour shifts.

By the second week in April, more than one month into the rehabilitation effort, only 11 of the original 26 were still alive.

"It is sad when you lose one. It's definitely not something you're looking forward to. But there's no time to dwell on that. There's so much hope in the future for the rest of them," said wildlife biologist Kate Banick, one of the volunteers.

Each year thousands of marine mammals are found beached or stranded along coastlines around the world, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society's Web site.

The reason for strandings isn't completely understood, but scientists suggest disease, navigational error or human interference.

For the 25-year-old Banick it was a simple choice -- the dolphins needed her help.

"If we hadn't ... stepped in at all, and no one had stepped in, these guys all probably 100 percent would have died on those shores," Banick said.

Most of the 100 volunteers had never been up close to a dolphin and needed instruction.

"Each person that comes in right off the street, we give them the basic training of how to stay safe around the animal and how not to hurt the animal," said Lloyd Brown, vice president of the conservancy.

In the pool, volunteers hold the dolphins and keep their blowholes out of the water so they can breathe.

A veterinarian injects the mammals with vitamin E to help with muscle cramping. Unable to eat on their own, they are fitted with a feeding tube to get them the needed nutrition.

Steve Gainen, a marine mammal trainer, gives volunteers a quick course in dolphin care using a plastic blow-up dolphin.

"If the dolphin starts getting a little rough, this hand stays the same, this hand comes around and grabs the base of the dorsal," Gainen said.

Cause of stranding unknown

Nobody knows what caused the dolphins to strand themselves, but the U.S. Navy and marine wildlife experts are investigating whether the Marathon stranding was caused by sonar exercises by a submarine.

There have been a handful of instances in which military sonar activities have overlapped with mass strandings of marine mammals -- which use their hearing to find food and their way. But the exact link is not understood.

Rough-toothed dolphins are named for the vertical ridges or "wrinkles" on their teeth, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

These features are impossible to see, and people often mistake them for bottlenose dolphins, which are common along the Atlantic coast.

Unlike other dolphins, however, they do not have a prominent beak. Instead, their beak "blends smoothly into the forehead, and some people have described them as looking like reptiles," according to the society's Web site.

The size of the worldwide population is unknown, the society says. They "prefer deep, warm waters away from the shore and avoid places with cold currents," it says.

They are sometimes spotted in the Bahamas, which are near the Florida Keys, according to the society's Web site. They also have been seen in the Mediterranean, in the Atlantic off Brazil, and in the Pacific near the Hawaiian Islands and Japan.

Feeding and care

The dolphins at the conservancy, identified by numbers, are hand-fed three times a day with herring stuffed with vitamins and medication.

"Today we made the first critical steps in getting them to eat dead fish and to eat them out of our hands," Banick said.

It's a race against time and feeding times must be strictly kept to.

For Robert Lingenfelser, who heads the conservancy, this day's feeding preparations have not been moving fast enough.

"Have they been tubed yet?" Lingenfelser asks a volunteer.

"No, they haven't," the volunteer responds.

"Now! Now! These guys are two hours behind schedule," Lingenfelser tells them.

Banick understands the commitment she has made -- the rehabilitation will likely last weeks, not days.

But the surviving dolphins have become stronger, and the volunteers hope they will soon be able to return to the open sea.

Banick wonders if the care and medication have been right. There's not much hard science on how to save a dolphin -- it has been learn as you go.

CNN's Marsha Walton contributed to this report

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