Captain Chris Jones was guiding a charter on the flats of Florida Bay Sunday afternoon when he and his clients encountered a distressed and stranded Atlantic bottlenose dolphin struggling in just inches of water.
“We were fishing in the flats, and it was maybe 5 to 10 inches,” Jones said. “There was a little depression, and she was just lying in there trapped.”
With spotty cell service at Crocodile Dragover, a flat on the eastern part of the bay deep within Everglades National Park, Jones decided it would be best for him to call a friend on land who could relay the message to park officials that there is a dolphin in need of help.
It worked. National Park Services rangers arrived about two hours later with members of the DolphinsPlus Marine Mammal Responders team, a Key Largo non-profit that is authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to conduct marine mammal rescues.
Meanwhile, Jones, who was participating in the annual Take Stock in Children Backcountry Challenge fishing tournament, did what he could do to keep the dolphin wet and as comfortable as possible. He and his clients, Will and Marua Palmer, from St. Petersburg, kept pouring water over her and petting her.
“She responded well. She was freaking out when we first saw her, but as time went by, she was just saving her energy,” Jones said. “You see the predator side of them when you’re out here fishing, and now she’s at your mercy. She would nudge me when I stopped petting her, like a dog would. She was just sweet.”
Dr. Jillian Schwartz, a marine mammal veterinarian with DolphinsPlus, examined the dolphin and determined she was safe enough to be released.
Park rangers and DolphinsPlus volunteers rolled a mat underneath the mammal and slowly walked her to deeper water, where she was able to swim off.
Most dolphin and whale strandings don’t have such happy endings, said Allyson Gantt, Everglades National Park education and outreach coordinator.
“Jones’ quick reporting and the coordinated response from [DolphinsPlus] and park staff resulted in a rare successful outcome,” Gantt said in a statement.
On his Mudpuppy Charters Instagram account, Jones thanked his clients for “sacrificing three hours of tournament fishing for the greater good.”
How to get help for stranded marine mammals
To report a dead, injured, sick or stranded whale or dolphin, contact NOAA’s marine mammal hotline at 877-WHALE-HELP or 877-942-5343. To report any wildlife in distress within Everglades National Park, call 844-677-0911 or (305) 242-7740.