Wayward dolphins die in river

Two of three dolphins are dead a month after they were found blocked off but apparently healthy in the Back River. The whereabouts of a third isn’t known.

More than a decade ago, a dramatic rescue with boats and nets saved three dolphins blocked off in the Back River. This time, marine biologists weren’t so lucky.

Two of three dolphins are dead that were discovered in June in fresh water behind the levee at Bushy Park off the Cooper River. The third, evidently a younger animal, hasn’t been seen in a week. It might have gone back the way the three came, 5 miles upstream from the dam where Bushy Park Road crosses, to where the river and Chicken Creek canal are fed by the Cooper River.

It simply might not have made it. The two dead dolphins were so mutilated by alligators that forensic work couldn’t be done.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s really sad that nothing more could be done to rescue them. It makes you wonder if it’s worth reporting (the sighting),” said Linda Colson of Goose Creek, who first spotted the dolphins one morning while she read the newspaper and sipped coffee at the boat landing there.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries tried. But an animal in the wild doesn’t always cooperate.

“We are concerned about every animal. We do the best we can. I hate to see this happen. It’s frustrating,” said Wayne McFee, National Ocean Service marine mammal stranding program scientist. “But there’s not a whole lot we can do when the animals don’t do what we want them to.”

Dolphins are salt water creatures. They will move into brackish and occasionally fresh water, likely following fish. But unless they find their way back, they eventually die.

When the three animals first were spotted in June, they apparently were healthy. Biologists gave them time to work their way out, as a dolphin apparently did in 2014. When their health appeared to deteriorate, rescue attempts were made. The problem was the dolphins were in too deep and wouldn’t move.

The depth at the boat landing is 25 feet or more. The nets don’t go that deep, and if they did it might not have mattered.

“Removing an animal from the water is no simple procedure in water depths beyond 6 feet,” McFee said. “Capturing at (25 feet or deeper) runs the risk of the animal being entangled in the lower portion of the net, which would likely result in drowning by the time they were brought to the surface, not to mention the safety risk to the rescuers in deep water.”

In 2001, three dolphins stymied by the levee kept retreating to shallower water up river, just not far enough to find their way out.

They were netted in that shallower water, McFee said. This time, the dolphins just wouldn’t go or be pushed. At one point, biologists tried “pinging” underwater with a sonar-like device that tends to frighten dolphin.

These three not only didn’t retreat, they came to the pinger. But when biologists moved upstream and pinged they wouldn’t follow, McFee said.

“There was no way to safely capture them,” he said.

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