A Helping Hand

The best thing to do to help stranded sea life is call the professionals

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Todd Douglas

Green sea turtle, Sweet Pea


A porpoise, manatee or a turtle has washed up on shore and can’t get back to where it belongs. The sight of an animal in distress tugs at the heartstrings, and your first instinct may be to try and help it. 

But you might want to think twice before going it alone. Experts recommend that you first call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922 (or *FWC from a mobile phone) and report the stranding to the professionals. They will guide your efforts until qualified experts can arrive on scene and, meanwhile, you can provide rescue operations with important information in real time. It’s much like calling 911 for a human emergency.

Todd Douglas

Juvenile Loggerhead sea turtle, Log, arrived with a flipper missing. The cause is unknown.

“In Florida, the coastline is covered by organizations designated to respond to strandings or sick animals, but we ask the public to be our eyes out there,” said Andy Garrett, an FWC marine mammal biologist at the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory in St. Petersburg. “There is so much water out there, and if people see distressed marine animals, they should call the Wildlife Alert Hotline. Don’t put it off because it takes longer for us to get there.”

“Strandings” happen when a porpoise, whale, manatee or sea turtle gets sick, or confused, and winds up beaching itself. A layperson typically responds by getting the animal back into the water. Unfortunately, there may be something seriously wrong that’s just not readily apparent. Pushing it back out may cause more problems for the animal — and for the people who have a better shot at helping it.

“If a dolphin is sick, it may re-strand in a place that’s not accessible to us. It’s pretty common for them to re-strand if pushed out,” Garrett said.

Allen McDowell, curator of fish and invertebrates at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach, said that when you call the hotline, an FWC representative will ask you specific questions to help the agency dispatch appropriate rescue crews to check the animal and make arrangements for its rescue. 

“Stranded animals should never be moved back into deeper water as this could make the situation worse for the animal,” McDowell said. He cautioned that a successful rescue depends on not trying anything by yourself, unless given directions over the phone.

The Gulfarium rehabilitates animals through its nonprofit C.A.R.E Center. The program has helped rehabilitate and release species of sea turtles found along the Gulf Coast, including the loggerhead, green sea turtle, Kemp’s Ridley and the hawksbill. Hundreds of sea turtles have been nursed back to health and returned to the wild.

Todd Douglas

Juvenille Loggerheard sea turtle, Teddy, arrived as a small hatchling with its right front flipper almost completely severed requiring it to be amputated. The cause is unknown, but it was found in a parking lot suggesting a bird had picked it up and dropped it.

“For beach goers, the best course of action is just to observe from a distance then provide any observations of interest to FWC or to the responding rescue crews,” McDowell said. “Many of these animals can be very dangerous to be around even though they are out of the water. Occasionally, FWC officials or the rescue crews will ask for assistance from people at the scene, but they will be very specific about what they need and how to do it safely.”

Garrett, the FWC’s manatee rescue coordinator, likewise warns bystanders that it might not be a good thing to jump in and mess around with a thousand-pound animal like a manatee.

“These animals can be dangerous. It can be a bad situation,” Garrett said. “Also, sometimes these animals carry diseases that can transfer to people.”

If you actually manage to roll a manatee back into the water, it could possibly drown if care is not taken. He said there was a case like this recently in Pinellas County where bystanders rolled a stranded manatee into the water and it was found dead the next day, drowned.

“They are marine mammals, and if they are rolled the animal could aspirate water and have complications,” Garrett said. 

Another scenario is finding a marine mammal like a manatee in the water exhibiting seemingly strange behavior. If you think it’s in distress, think again. You might just be interrupting a mating ritual.

From a broader perspective, Garrett said that manatees are a federally protected species, and it’s illegal for citizens to intervene and touch them.

“There have been cases where we have instructed people to assist the animal until we get there, but we want that under our direction. We’d rather have the experts on scene, but people do what they do and it’s all about education,” Garrett said.

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