It took all of about 15 seconds to set the net that captured Seymour, a local dolphin whose entanglement in fishing line had resulted in a life threatening injury.
Forty-five minutes earlier, at 11:45 as the Dolphin Explorer turned into Collier Bay a passenger called out a dolphin sighting. The dolphin only had to resurface once for James Liviccari, the naturalist aboard, to confirm that after five hours of searching, Seymour had been found.
Seymour’s injury caused him to raise his tail higher out of the water than is normal for a dolphin, revealing, each time, a bulbous mass of scar tissue that had grown around an entanglement that cut deeply to the animal’s bone. James was very familiar with the injury’s appearance and Seymour’s odd manner of diving – in late November 2011 he had taken the photograph of Seymour’s tail that precipitated the day’s rescue effort. In the intervening months he and the other members of the 10,000 Island Dolphin Project had logged hundreds of man-hours searching for, then following Seymour to determine the extent of his range and his daily habits in preparation for this day.
Captain Chris Desmond called in the sighting and kept Seymour in view as the animal moved deeper into Collier Bay. Rescue boats with teams experienced in the difficult task of safely capturing and treating a wild dolphin had fanned out over a wide area for the search and now all raced to the scene.
While planning for this moment had begun four months ago, the 30 members of this team who assembled at the Collier County boat ramp that morning had learned that the rescue attempt was given a final green light only two days before.
Four requirements needed to be met before the final decision to begin the rescue could be given. The first requirement was met in December, 2011 when veterinarians analyzing photos provided by Sea Excursions 10,000 Island Dolphin Project, determined Seymour’s injuries were life threatening. Based on that evaluation Blair Mase, Regional Stranding Coordinator for The National Marine Fisheries Service, authorized a rescue and began planning logistics.
The timing of the rescue depended on the availability of the various partners in the stranding network, optimal weather conditions and a requirement that the animal be spotted within at least five days of the scheduled rescue.
All of these elements finally came together on Friday, March 9.
I joined the other participants in the anticipated rescue at 7:30 a.m. as they arrived at the Collier County boat ramp on 951. It was an impressive sight and as the team assembled resources necessary to the day’s activities, the magnitude of the undertaking began to dawn on me.
Individuals from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute readied the huge net to be used in the capture and loaded it aboard their vessel, a converted mullet fishing boat whose engine was mounted well forward of the stern. Depth poles, net anchors and clip lines essential for the crucial job of correctly setting the net were taken on as well.
A team of veterinarians from the University of Florida College of Veterinary medicine checked and prepared their supplies – surgical implements and scissors soaking in alcohol to cut out the gear around his tail, multiple syringes filled with betadyne solution to cleanse the wound, and a variety of other supplies that filled tackle boxes and plastic containers fitted with flotation devices. An oxygen tank with apparatus tailored to fit a dolphin’s blowhole was readied, as were antibiotics to administer to Seymour before his release.
Sea World provided safety dive gear and a Navy Mat, a large floating platform that could be employed to support Seymour and the doctors working to cut out the entangled gear that was threatening his life.
Liquid nitrogen was loaded aboard the chase vessel in anticipation of freeze branding a number onto Seymour’s dorsal fin to aide in tracking him in the future and Mote Marine had pre-programmed a satellite tag to monitor his post release movements.
A transport vehicle fitted with a wet tank was standing by to transport Seymour across the state to a rehabilitation facility at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute if his injuries proved to be serious enough to require a period of rehabilitation.
Once on the water, I watched the others boats in the operation huddle together near the ABC islands then uncertainly disperse to begin searching. The scene at the boat ramp amidst the assembled experts impressed upon me the magnitude of the undertaking required to capture and treat a wild dolphin. Now alone in my boat, I was reminded of another impossibility, that of finding a specific dolphin – an animal that is beneath the surface and essentially invisible most of the time - in a vast area of water that includes countless mangrove islands, enclosed bays, a labyrinth of canals and the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Fortunately we weren’t entirely starting from scratch. During our surveys aboard the Dolphin Explorer, an eco-tour devoted to involving the public in documenting our local population of bottlenose dolphins, we had logged the location of over 200 sightings of Seymour since 2006. He was one of the first dolphins we catalogued. When we first encountered him he was still a calf and we named him Seymour because we saw him and his mother Halfway more than any other dolphins. In those early years we could pretty much be guaranteed to find them along the seawall on the northwest facing side of the Isles of Capri.
Once he became a sub-adult at about three years of age, we saw far less of Seymour. The heart of his range had clearly shifted outside the path we normally followed on our surveys.
As the urgency of determining the specifics of his range and habits increased with the approach of the scheduled rescue date, we turned to the local community for help and their response is what tipped the balance in our favor.
Individuals from the community that had seen Seymour had already contacted the Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 888-404-3922 to report sightings and express their concern.
The Rose Marco River Marina displayed a ‘Wanted’ poster of Seymour and relayed information to us when boaters radioed in sightings. On several occasions they made rental boats available to us at no cost, enabling us to put three boats on the water simultaneously to search for him.
Shannon Monahan, a captain of one of the sailboats from the Marriot, called in a sighting that allowed us to conduct an unprecedented five-hour follow of Seymour.
Kris Greenough, the Dockmaster at the Esplanade, also displayed a picture and was particularly diligent in watching out for Seymour. He contacted us on several occasions when Seymour wandered into Smokehouse Bay, including one crucial sighting that fell within the five-day window necessary to trigger the rescue.
We plotted each new sighting on Google Earth and gradually developed a sense that the best place to focus our search efforts was along the canals on the northeast side of Marco.
The cumulative effort of the Marco community is why the Dolphin Explorer was able to turn into Collier Bay and encounter Seymour that Friday morning.
Within moments the chase boats had Seymour in sight and for the next 45 minutes we watched as they patiently followed him around until he wandered into water shallow enough to set the net. Suddenly the lead chase boat and Larry Mulford, a former mullet fisherman and designated dolphin catcher for the operation, sped in a wide circle. Before I could take in what was happening he came to an abrupt stop and the settling water revealed the net completely encircling Seymour in a small inlet off Collier Bay.
Within another minute Seymour was at the side of the chase boat and before much longer the doctors from Florida University were doing their work. As we watched from a distance numerous boats leaving Smokehouse Bay passed by and one asked me what was going on. “A dolphin rescue,” I told them and they said, “Oh! Is it Seymour?” I was happy to realize how many people were rooting for him and working on his behalf.