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May 24, 2024

Bottlenose dolphin dies during rescue attempt in Cape May County creek

The animal panicked after a net was used to capture it as 'a last resort,' the Marine Mammal Stranding Center said.

Wildlife Dolphins
Dolphin Cape May @marinemammalstrandingcenternj/Instagram

The bottlenose dolphin that became stranded in the Skeeter Island Creek in Cape May County died Friday morning after it was captured using a net. The marine mammal became stranded in the creek some time last week, wildlife experts said.

A bottlenose dolphin that was stranded in a creek in Cape May County died Friday morning during a complicated rescue effort led by wildlife experts who had tried to herd it out of the area, officials said.

The dolphin "immediately panicked" when trapped inside a net — the last of several rescue methods used — and died within two minutes, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center wrote on Instagram.

On May 16, the Brigantine-based wildlife center was notified that a dolphin was in Skeeter Island Creek in Cape May Court House. Experts believe the marine mammal — about 7 feet long — had wandered to the inland waterway from the Delaware Bay while chasing prey. If left on its own, the dolphin would have been in danger of running out of food in the contained area.

After monitoring the dolphin for a few days, rescuers initially tried to encourage it to leave the creek by surrounding it with a pair of boats. When that failed, additional equipment was brought in from out of state to try to steer the animal away using other techniques.

More than a dozen people and three boats were involved in Friday morning's rescue attempt, which included a series of tactics meant to drive the dolphin out of the creek without physically capturing or handling it.

"In-water captures are high risk as they pose a significant danger to both the dolphin as well as the responders," MMSC said. "In this case, when the less-invasive techniques failed, the decision was made to attempt an in-water capture as a last resort."

The net was deployed from one of the boats to corral the dolphin and bring it toward the shore, but the dolphin didn't survive the stress of the encounter. It was immediately taken to the New Jersey Animal Health and Diagnostic Lab for a full necropsy. 

"Our entire team is deeply saddened about this outcome," MMSC said. "Out of habitat cetaceans are the most difficult scenario in marine mammal rescue. As animals that live in the open ocean, this type of habitat is foreign to them and causes immense stress, making the chances of rescue and survival slim."

The dolphin was described as older than a juvenile but not yet fully grown. At full size, bottlenose dolphins typically measure 10-14 feet. They tend to live in pods that can include hundreds of other dolphins that have wide ranges in tropical and temperate seas. During the warmer months, they migrate to the Cape May area to mate and give birth. The species is federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Another dolphin that was stranded in the same section of the creek in 2016 was successfully rescued by MMSC staff and volunteers and released into the Delaware Bay.

For Friday's rescue effort, MMSC volunteers were joined by state, federal and local agencies.