BETHANY BEACH – Officials are seeking an outside opinion on the exact cause behind the death of a white sided dolphin that washed ashore on the beach this week.
On Tuesday, a white sided dolphin washed ashore onto the beaches of Bethany Beach, Del. Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute (MERR) Executive Director Suzanne Thurman reported that the dolphin was a young adult female and approximately seven and half feet long and weighed around 300 pounds.
“And that is a species that we do see in the winter time around here,” said Thurman. “They differ to the bottle nose dolphin that we see here in the summer.”
Thurman said that the town manager found the white sided dolphin and reported her to MERR. When she arrived, the dolphin was buried in snow and sand.
“We were able to get to her pretty quickly,” said Thurman. “She was already dead, but she was still in fairly fresh condition. So we were able to get better samples and to really make a better evaluation to really understand what was going on with her.”
MERR is seeking outside advice to determine the exact cause of the dolphin’s death.
“We don’t know for sure but she had not been eating,” Thurman said in a phone interview “She was under weight and had no food present in her system. She had a heavy parasite load, which is common with an animal that has been in ill health and has not been eating.”
MERR did depict one abnormality about the dolphin — her teeth, or lack thereof.
“She basically had no teeth, they hadn’t fallen out, they just had never erupted fully,” said Thurman. “Almost like a birth defect and yet she managed to live to this adult age.”
The institute suspects the white sided dolphin was unable to eat, slowly starved to death and ultimately drowned.
“That was most likely a result of being in such a weakened condition,” said Thurman. “She could no longer get to the surface to breath air.”
The dolphin had indications on her skin that she was surrounded by a group of other dolphins prior to her death, according to Thurman.
“When there are individuals in a group that are ailing, for whatever reason, the others will try to support the ailing dolphin,” Thurman said. “She had quite a few teeth rake marks where they may have been putting their mouths on her to try to support her above the water.”
Teeth rake marks are common for any dolphin species because of interaction and playful behavior.
Thurman added that “she was exceptionally clean, which is an indication that she was young, and that she had no injuries or scarring.”
According to Thurman, white sided dolphins live in colder climates and they are more partial to the New England area.
“It is not uncommon for us to see white sided dolphin in this area in the winter months,” said Thurman. “They are more adapted to cold water climates compared to the bottle nose dolphins that move south in the winter.”
Also in comparison to the area’s popular bottle nose dolphin, white sided dolphins are smaller with a smaller bone structure.
“It’s just that they tend to stay off shore so we don’t see them,” said Thurman. “The bottle nose dolphin comes so close to shore we have a fortunate opportunity to see them right from the beach.”
MERR is a non-profit stranding response and rehabilitation organization dedicated to the conservation of marine mammals and sea turtles.
MERR’s website states, “over 30 species of marine mammals and sea turtles occur off of Delaware’s coast each year, many of which are endangered or protected species. These marine animals utilize the area as a feeding ground for a variety of organisms that are part of our marine ecosystem.”
“We are in our seal season so we have had numerous seals,” said Thurman. “As a natural behavior they hull out of the water so that they can rest on the beach, they have to get out of the water to sleep, and that will be ongoing throughout the winter months until mid-spring when they tend to move north.”
MERR’s 24-hour contact number is 302-228-5029.
“So that if people do have a sighting of any marine mammal or sea turtle, they have that number to call it in,” said Thurman.