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It was with great delight that crews from NSRI Stations 2 (Bakoven) and 8 (Hout Bay) were able to assist the Marine Animal Stranding Network and SPCA to refloat two bottlenose dolphins that had beached on Sandy Bay on Cape Town’s Atlantic Seaboard.

NSRI Station 2 (Bakoven) deputy station commander David Rosenberg is no stranger to marine mammal strandings, so when the alert came through on the station’s Whatsapp group from station commander Luke van Riet of two bottlenose dolphins stranded on Sandy Bay, David felt he could put his experience to use and assist.

“I said ‘yes’ to the callout, along with rescue swimmers Cullam Geyser, Adam Venter and Robbie Leusink.“ The crew met at Bakoven’s base and launched Gemini Legend while Luke rallied Station 8’s (Hout Bay) crew for additional support. “In cases like these, the more hands the better,” David explains.

The two dolphins had been discovered stranded on the beach on the morning of 28 July, about 25m from the shoreline and about 50m apart. Table Mountain National Parks rangers, the SPCA and the City of Cape Town Marine Animal Stranding Network (CTMASN) had been alerted and were on scene, along with concerned members of the public. It was thought that the pair had been stranded the night before during a high spring tide. The CTMASN had asked the NSRI for assistance in refloating the dolphins and then escorting them out to sea safely.

“Dolphins weigh between 350 and 400kg, so they are more manageable than whales, but you still need manpower,” David explains. Over the years, he’s also learnt that they need to be moved carefully because handling them incorrectly could cause internal damage. They need to stay wet, but with their blowhole protected, and they need to be placed as close together as possible during refloating, so they can hear each other’s calls.

Dolphin rescue

“The idea would be to move one dolphin to knee-deep water, then bring the second one in close proximity and refloat them together. You don’t want one going out to sea, hearing the other’s ‘chirps’, and then returning to shore and beaching again,” David explains.

Gemini Legend was manoeuvred as close to shore as possible, and Cullam and Adam were dropped off to join those already at the scene. David remained onboard to manage operations with Robbie. “I briefed the crew on the necessary protocols too. We’re experienced in rescuing people in various scenarios; the marine experts know about animals and animal behaviour. We’re here to help, offer manpower and work with them to move the animals as safely and effectively as possible,” David adds.

Moving the dolphins with normal stretchers wasn’t going to work because of their weight. Trenches were dug next to and under the first dolphin and a scoop stretcher and canvas bags were used to create a sling. Once secured, the dolphin was carried to the shoreline by 20 people rotating turns. “We’d walk a bit, stop, rotate, walk a bit more, stop, rotate, and so it went until we reached the shoreline,” Cullam explains. “There were four of us just holding it there.” The same procedure was followed with the second dolphin.

In the meantime, more manpower arrived in the form of Station 8 (Hout Bay) crew headed up by Chris Westcott. “On arrival, the City of Cape Town’s Marine Animal Stranding Network, the SPCA, members of the public, and the Station 2 rescue swimmers had done an incredible job of stabilising and relocating the two dolphins from the high water mark to the edge of the water,” explains Chris. “Our team split up and was able to assist with slowly moving the dolphins into the surf.

“When the dolphins were moved into ankle-deep water, they became livelier and started moving about. This made it very difficult to manoeuvre them further out due to their now slippery skin, sheer weight, and waves hitting the teams. It took all hands to stabilize the dolphins and move them forward,” Chris adds

“It was a bit like manoeuvring a boat into incoming waves,” Cullam says. “It was important to keep their heads steady and facing the waves. We’d count 1, 2, 3, then brace. This way, we also protected their fins.”

The first dolphin swam away with relative ease and was observed about 500m offshore; the second seemed a bit reluctant, so David steered Gemini Legend to where it was, about 200m offshore. “It hung around the boat for a while, possibly getting its strength back, then headed off,” he says.

“It was a relief when Rescue 2 transmitted over the radio confirming that the dolphins were looking strong and making their way south,” says Chris. “It was a good day.”

Dolphin rescue

Thanks to the teams from Table Mountain National Parks rangers, the SPCA and the City of Cape Town Marine Animal Stranding Network (CTMASN), and NSRI Station 2: David Rosenberg, Cullam Geyser, Adam Venter, Robbie Leusink, and NSRI Station 8: Chris Westcott, Renier Combrink, Lee Cooper, Bella Cooper, Derryn Faure, Regan Phillips and Aedan Cummings.

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