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How best to assist a whale, dolphin or sea turtle that needs help

Kemp's ridley sea turtle. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Common dolphin. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Harbor and gray seals. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

"When assisting a marine animal that may need help, our first step is to observe the situation. If the animal is exhibiting natural behavior, human intervention may not be necessary. We want to minimize needless stress on the animal, which could harm it."      Mendy Garron, marine mammal stranding response program coordinator

Humpback whale breach. Photo credit: NOAA

"Trained responders always assess the animal condition and the situation first before attempting to disentangle a sea turtle, whale, dolphin or other marine mammal caught in rope or marine debris. We want to ensure the safest approach for the animal and the response team."   Kate Sampson, sea turtle stranding and disentanglement network coordinator

Its summer. The weather is warm. Residents and visitors in coastal communities naturally head to the beach or to their boats to get out on the water. This is also when the chances are greatest of encountering various marine life – whales, dolphins, seals or sea turtles - in northern states from Maine to North Carolina. 

Seeing one of these remarkable creatures in their natural habitat can be thrilling. For instance, at this time of year, it’s not unusual to come upon seals on coastal beaches. They use these areas to “haul out” or rest. While boating, you may witness the aerial acrobatics of a breaching humpback whale, or a bow-riding dolphin. Unfortunately, not all encounters with marine life are good ones. Sometimes animals are in distress, entangled in rope or other marine debris in coastal waters or are sick, injured or dead on the shoreline.

Understandably, when we see an animal that appears to be in trouble, our first inclination may be to try to help it. But that isn’t the best option for the animal or the person trying to help. We need to remember these are wild animals. It is dangerous to try to help an injured, entangled whale or sea turtle that can weigh hundreds if not thousands of pounds. It’s also not a good idea to try to assist when you see what might be a stranded seal. Seals bite and could transmit disease to you or your pets if approached to closely. Keeping a safe distance is not only good advice; it is the law.

Best Way to Increase Chances of Successful Rescue --  Leave it to the Experts

Only trained responders should attempt to help a whale, dolphin, seal or sea turtle that needs assistance. Often when NOAA Fisheries or our partners see a dolphin or whale close to shore or a seal on the beach, our first step is to observe. This helps us understand if the animal is actually sick or injured, or just exhibiting natural behaviors such as feeding, diving, or resting.  

Sometimes dolphins or whales may come closer to shore following prey and then depart when the prey moves on. In other situations, when an animal is sick or injured and in need of help, trained responders know best how to handle the situation. To assist entangled marine animals, we work with a team of experts, such as biologists, fishing gear experts, and veterinarians, to determine the best way to free the animal and ensure the disentanglement effort is successful. It also gives us the opportunity to recover the gear and gain valuable information which could help prevent future entanglements.

Experienced responders are able to:

  1. Observe the situation and assess animal health
  2. Determine the best methods and equipment to use to free the animal 
  3. Transport the animal to a rehabilitation facility if it is in need of further medical treatment and it is possible to do so
  4. Collect needed biological and behavioral information
  5. Safely recover the gear or rope that entangled the animal, which can be used to inform development of new measures that may prevent future entanglements   

What You Should Do

Read more about recent case involving dolphin harassment off Florida coast.