Rescue shows need for marine mammal hospital - A woman holding a fish - Florida Keys
One of the two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins rescued off the waters of Fiesta Key, at MM 70, on July 26 by staff and volunteers at Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder. CONTRIBUTED

Two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins were rescued off the shallow waters of Fiesta Key Campground and Marina at MM 70 on July 26. With the dolphins now in long-term care, the organization that helped save the dolphins continues its work to develop a marine mammal hospital.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and National Marine Fisheries Services notified Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder of the situation involving the two dolphins. 

“Seeing these two stranded dolphins struggling on their sides to just gasp a single breath of air devastated me. After righting the weaker of the two first and moving them both together into deeper water, it was sad to see that neither could stay upright without assistance.” says Capt. Matt Bellinger who was on-site assisting in the rescue. “The reality was that both dolphins would’ve drowned on the incoming tide and it horrified me. I was relieved to see the arrival of the DPMMR crew and medical staff; there was hope for these magnificent beings.”

After two unsuccessful release attempts, medical evaluation by veterinarian Dr. Jillian Schwartz, and consultation with the NMFS, it was determined that both animals needed long-term rehabilitation to survive. DPMMR does not yet have the facilities necessary to offer such rehabilitative care, so the two animals were transferred to the only place in the state that had the capability to take on their rehabilitation: SeaWorld.

SeaWorld has rescued over 35,000 animals, including an impressive 533 whales and dolphins. Here, the two dolphins will receive world-class veterinary care in a behind-the-scenes area for as long as it takes to make a full recovery. The ultimate goal is for the two animals to be released back into Florida Keys waters, which is a fate that depends on both the success of the rehabilitation and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The NMFS is the governing agency that determines if an animal is ready for release, and if the animals are deemed non-releasable will make the decision on where the animals should be placed.

“If it wasn’t for SeaWorld, these animals would have had to be euthanized. We were really grateful for their partnership in this rescue and their willingness to support these dolphins’ rehabilitation.” said Nancy Cooper, president of DPMMR. “As it stands right now, there is no facility authorized by the NMFS to carry out dolphin rehabilitation in the Florida Keys. However, we’re working hard behind the scenes to obtain the funding to create a facility so that when these strandings happen, the animals can undergo rehabilitation in their Keys home.”

Capt. Matt Bellinger assists in the rescue of two dolphins with fellow volunteers and staff at DPMMR.

Cooper said DPMMR has secured a 2-acre plot in Key Largo to be used for rehabilitation facilities, but in order to become licensed by the NMFS to carry out any long-term rehabilitation, special facilities will need to be developed. These include quarantine pools, filtration systems, sea pens and support areas (fish preparation, medical room and office space).

The initial development will cost around $2 million. Approximately $35,000 of this was raised at the organization’s first “Connect to Protect” gala in May, but that still leaves a hefty amount to be raised.  

“This stranding further reinforces the fact that we need a marine mammal hospital in the Keys,” said Hunter Kinney, assistant director of development. “The only way to develop such a facility, however, is going to be through connecting with the people who want to financially support the hospital’s development.”

Kinney said they are actively working towards finding such a donor, but in the interim are accepting any donations to the cause, including in-kind services.

Those interested in helping bring a Marine Mammal Hospital back to the Florida Keys, may visit to make an online donation or mail a contribution to DPMMR ATTN: Hospital 31 Corrine Place, Key Largo, FL. All donations are tax-deductible and are earmarked for hospital development.

More information is available from Cooper, president of DPMMR, at 305-453-4321 or via email at [email protected].

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