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Printed October 15, 2019

Volunteering to rehabilitate dolphins fulfilling experience

By Janice Edwards/ The Bulletin

Roy called me to the deck to see something special – a pod of dolphins cruising upriver. My heart thrilled at the sight.

I grew up watching Flipper, and the kid in me always wanted a pet dolphin. I know now that dolphins used in the TV show became neurotic from their experiences, and it’s illegal to feed, harass or come within 150 feet of a wild dolphin.

It doesn’t matter - just seeing dolphins in the river delights me in ways I can’t explain. Maybe that’s because Roy and I experienced dolphin enchantment up close and intimate.

It started 1n 1994 when I responded to a Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network (TMMSN) plea on AM 740 radio for help sitting with a sick dolphin. That dolphin was named Rocket because he was found stranded June 22, 1994 – the day of the NBA Rockets Championship parade in Houston.

I listened to that plea several times before it sunk in that they were desperate for people to help monitor a sick dolphin who had stranded. They listed a telephone number for more information.

Never having marine mammal experience, I really wondered if they meant anyone not in that field. But when Roy got home, I discussed it with him, and we called anyway. Turns out any volunteer who was dependable and showed up for their shift was wanted. We both volunteered – I mean, who gets to work with dolphins?

TMMSN told us what to do in our 4-hour shifts - monitor the dolphin’s activity, and once an hour count respiration.
Volunteers were so desperately needed for this 24/7process as the Marine Biology students who normally did this chore were off on summer break.

Roy and I lived off the Gulf Freeway about a 30-minute drive from the NOAA facilities where they treated the dolphins. Our first experience was with Rocket, a bottle-nosed dolphin.

By my third shift with him, thanks to ‘round-the-clock care and antibiotics, he was well enough to return to the wild, and I was asked if I would like to slip into the pool and feed him.

I entered the pool and extended his dinner from my right hand. He swam close and rolled on his side. Our eyes met. We connected without words.

He took the fish and swam around my legs, rubbing them like an 8’6” cat. I can’t explain what ideas exchanged between us; I only know I was changed forever.

Rocket was just the first in a series of dolphins we sat with. We didn’t get to go on his release, but we did get to go on Charlie’s. Charlie was a pantropical spotted dolphin, and he bonded with Roy like Rocket did with me. When he was well enough, we watched him be transported to the Freeport Coast Guard station and loaded on a boat to take him out to sea.

We boarded the Coast Guard support boat, following him out to his release point. What a thrill watching him released back in the wild.

We sat with Nemo, a large bottle-nosed dolphin and helped teach baby Cole, a dolphin separated from his mother in a storm, how to eat. These events were happening simultaneously. While this was going on, Bridgett Fonda came down and shot part of a documentary, “The Trouble with Dolphins.” Roy and I got to go out on the support boat to release Nemo during this time and got to interact with Cole.

Because of his young age, Cole could not be returned to the wild. It was great fun being in the pool with him. All he wanted to do was play. Not so much fun force-feeding him fish – the little devil was strong. Did you know that if you get a fish in just the right spot in a dolphin’s throat, he has to swallow it?

We also got to know Hope, another pantropical spotted dolphin who came in with a collapsed lung, among other problems.
This time, we had to take shifts sitting on the bottom of the tank, keeping her wet and holding her blow hole out of the water.
Every four hours we put her body in a sling and walked her around the tank to keep her muscles from atrophying. She developed pneumonia and had to be euthanized. There were a lot of tears at our house that night.

The last dolphin we had anything to do with was Nick. He came in covered with cookie-cutter shark bites, and before our shift with him, he died. Then my friend, Kristin, and I went to Galveston to help with the necropsy. By the time we got there, though, we only had to watch for a while before we cleaned the pool.

A little while later, the leadership of this organization changed, and laymen dolphin watchers were no longer in demand.
But I have memories of playing ball with a baby dolphin, hand-feeding an adult dolphin, watching returns to the wild and communicating without words by looking into the eyes of wild creatures.

Jan in the tank with dolphin as it is rehabilitated.

(Jan wants to hear from you. Write her in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)