Don’t enter the water to assist or recover dolphins, expert warns

     Lifeguards assisting a sick dolphin at Island Beach State Park late Sunday afternoon. (Photo: Sandy Bartkiewicz Rea via Facebook)

    Lifeguards assisting a sick dolphin at Island Beach State Park late Sunday afternoon. (Photo: Sandy Bartkiewicz Rea via Facebook)

    Don’t enter the water to assist or recover a wounded, sick or dead dolphin.

    That’s what Robert Schoelkopf, founding director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a nonprofit organization based in Brigantine, wants you to know as dolphin deaths continue to rise at the Jersey Shore this summer. 

    In Ocean City last week, a shark took a bite out of a dying dolphin struggling in knee-deep water, Schoelkopf told NewsWorks and Jersey Shore Hurricane News.

    “We were lucky because just before the dolphin appeared, we had a severe lighting storm and lifeguards blew their whistles to get people out of the water,” he said. “Someone in the crowd wading in the water could have been bitten.”

    Stranding technicians from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center arrived as lifeguards were ordering bathers out of the ocean.

    Understanding the danger, responders do not enter the water to recover sea life. Instead, they wait for the animal to wash ashore, Schoelkopf said.

    The dolphin in Ocean City subsequently died on the beach and was removed by the center’s technicians, who have recovered 39 dead dolphins since July, the latest this afternoon in Avalon, Schoelkopf said Monday. 

    Four of the stricken dolphins tested positive for morbillivirus, a naturally occurring virus in dolphin populations, according to Schoelkopf. Tests on the remaining dolphins are pending. In some cases, the corpse is too badly decomposed to determine a cause of death.

    “Dolphins swim close together in pods. Diseases spread between animals when they surface to breathe,” Schoelkopf said in a July 2013 N.J. Department of Environmental Protection release. “There is no evidence that the deaths we are seeing this summer are in any way related to water quality.”

    In Island Beach State Park late Sunday afternoon, a struggling dolphin entered the surf zone, quickly attracting beachgoers. 

    Lifeguards entered the water and attempted to assist the dolphin back to deeper water, but the creature came closer to shore and was eventually carried to a lifeguard truck for removal from the beach, eyewitnesses told Jersey Shore Hurricane News.  

    A few Marine Mammal Stranding Center staffers left the organization’s fundraiser in Atlantic City and responded to the state park. The dolphin, which died, is currently undergoing a necropsy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Kennett Square, Pa. 

    And just hours after the Island Beach State Park incident, a dolphin was seen floating near a pier about 150 feet off Avalon. Schoelkopf said that his crews are in the process of recovering the marine mammal Monday afternoon, but only after it washed ashore. 

    “Just let the current bring it in,” he warned. 

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal