Expert offers thoughts on dolphin strandings

Frank Gale
Published on July 26, 2014
Jack Lawson, a research scientist with the marine section of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, is seen by the foreflipper of a bowhead whale in this undated photo. — Submitted photo

Playing follow the leader or follow the food.

Those are two of the possible reasons for recent dolphin standings in the Main Gut and Rothesay Bay areas of Bay St. George, says Jack Lawson, a research scientist with the marine section of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The marine mammal expert, without being on the scene, couldn’t say definitively what happened to these animals, but did offer some thoughts on the mystery that has locals wondering about what looks like dolphin suicide.

Lawson said dolphins are dark skinned and, once they get into shallow water or out of the water, they get overheated inside and get their internal organs damaged. This also happens to a number of species of dark skinned whales as their skin acts like a “giant parka.”

He said the stress from being in such a situation can actually “cook their brains a bit” and cause them to do things they normally wouldn’t do.

From what he’s read and seen online about the dolphins stranded in the Bay St. George area, Lawson wonders if it was a case of a sick animal stranding itself and the other dolphins in the pod following along.

“These are very social animals,” he said. “They’ve been seen in schools of up to 1,500 together.”

Lawson said the people who worked to rescue these dolphins went about it the right way by releasing them all at once. He said there have often been instances where released dolphins hear the call of “their buddies” on the beach, and they come back in.

He said they also could have been chasing capelin or some other type of food source. If there are lots of capelin close to shore, he said dolphins will chase it. If the tide falls quickly, they can get stranded.

Lawson believes that the various incidents of dolphin strandings in the Bay St. George area are likely the same pod of animals, especially since they were identified as the white-beaked dolphin.

They are not an endangered species, as in 2007 there was a multi-national survey done on white-beaked dolphins with a count of around 16,000 of them at that time, he said.

Lawson doesn’t believe the dolphins are stranding because something is interfering with their sonar, because there are no seismic testing operations going on in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, other than offshore Labrador.

A suggestion of interference by cellphone use was also discarded by the scientist, who said records of strandings on beaches and ice date back long before cellphones came into existence. Lawson said the records go back to the 1800s.

“It happened before and I guarantee it will happen again every year during both seasons,” Lawson said. “It’s quite unfortunate for the animals.”