Florida Keys

Two dolphins were stranded in shallow water. People raced to help

Vacationers and local residents worked together to free two dolphins they said were stranded in shallow water of the Florida Keys.

The dolphins, discovered July 26 just off the Fiesta Key RV Resort and Marina at mile marker 70 in Layton, were on their sides and struggling to gasp even a single breath, witnesses said.

Even after they were righted and moved into deeper water, they couldn’t stay upright without help.

“The reality was that both dolphins would have drowned on the incoming tide and it horrified me,” said Matt Bellinger, a boat captain from Islamorada who rushed to the scene when he was called by the Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder agency in Key Largo.

Bellinger used a surfboard to reach the dolphins and called out to people on shore to join him in righting the dolphins.

“They were lifting their heads to get a very short breath before dropping down,” Bellinger said. “I approached them and went to the larger of the two, got it turned over on its belly.”

Vacationers and locals on July 26, 2019, help rescue two dolphins they said were stranded in shallow water off Fiesta Key Campground at mile marker 70 in the Florida Keys. Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder

“Some folks pulled one into deeper water and it came right back,” Ashlee Zotter, of Layton, posted on Facebook, along with a video of the rescue.

“They said they’ve had three groups stuck in the shallows over the last three days because of really low tides,” Zotter wrote.

The pair, both adult Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, have landed at SeaWorld in Orlando for rehabilitation after two unsuccessful release attempts and consultation with a veterinarian and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

SeaWorld is the only place in Florida that could take on the rehabilitation of the dolphins, according to the Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder, which has worked to rescue dolphins since 1987.

They were called in once locals saw the stranded dolphins and called for help.

“If it wasn’t for SeaWorld, these animals would have had to be euthanized,” said Nancy Cooper, the nonprofit’s president. “We have to use facilities that have marine mammal veterinarians. They’ve spent millions of dollars just on conservation. They don’t make money on that.”

The Keys lack such a facility for dolphin rehabilitation, but Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder is trying to change that.

The agency is renting two acres in Key Largo to enlarge its operations but still needs facilities like quarantine pools, filtration systems, sea pens, a medical room and office space in order to obtain a license from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

So far, the nonprofit has raised $35,000 of the $2 million it says is needed to complete the rehabilitation center.

The ultimate goal is to bring the dolphins back to the Florida Keys, but that depends on whether rehabilitation is successful and approval from the fisheries service, the governing agency that determines if an animal is ready for release.

Bellinger said the intervention saved the dolphins from a bitter end.

“They would have died a really horrid death,” he said. “I’ve seen it.”