A Blue View: Why Animals Strand

by John Racanelli, Chief Executive Officer

Published October 02, 2013

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

October 2, 2013: Why Animals Strand

Click here to listen to John discuss the alarming
number of dolphins strandings observed along
the East Coast this year.

2013 has been a record-breaking year for dolphin strandings, with more than 500 dolphins stranding along the East Coast from New York to North Carolina since July 1. This number is almost 10 times the historical average for our region, and as a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared an unusual mortality event, or UME, working with partners throughout the region to respond to strandings and attempt to discover their causes.

A UME is declared when marine mammal strandings are unexpected, involve significant mortalities, and demand immediate response. Understanding and investigating marine mammal UMEs are important because they often serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues. Since 1991, 60 UMEs have been declared nationally with the most common species cited as bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, and manatees.

NOAA has tentatively attributed the mid-Atlantic dolphin die-off to a deadly strain of a measles-like disease, morbillivirus, based on tissue sampling. This same virus caused more than 700 dolphin deaths in 1987 and 1988, and—sadly—this current outbreak isn’t expected to fully subside until next spring.

Many marine animals, including dolphins, whales, seals, turtles, and sea lions, are known to strand. In late 2012, frigid waters off the coast of New England caused a severe cold-stun event, resulting in sea turtle strandings in record numbers. This winter was unlike any other for our partners in New England, who called in the National Aquarium and other animal rescue organizations to help with a mass stranding of more than 400 sea turtles. Over the next 6 months, more than 240 were rehabilitated and released into warmer waters.

On the West Coast this year, more than 1,000 sea lion pups washed ashore in Southern California, many starving and dehydrated. Though the cause of this mass stranding is still officially unknown, scientists believe that the young sea lions aren’t getting the food they need due to environmental factors that are limiting prey availability for pups. An investigation is ongoing.

These are just a few recent examples, and the fact is, animal strandings—of both individuals and entire populations—can occur for many reasons. Sometimes an animal is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other times, an animal gets caught in fishing gear or is struck by a fishing vessel. Or, as in the case of the dolphins this year, an illness spreads through a population.

Those who spend time at the shore have probably seen a stranded marine animal. Even still, it can be difficult for even the most savvy beach-goer to know what to do.

First, you should never approach a stranded animal. If you encounter a semi-aquatic marine mammal resting on land, such as a seal, count yourself lucky. Appreciate the animal from a safe distance of at least 4 or 5 car lengths, take plenty of pictures, and remember that these are wild animals.

How you can help: 

  • Report any aquatic animal strandings or mortalities to the local stranding response facility. In Maryland, call the Natural Resources Police at 1-800-628-9944.
  • If you can, document the event with photos or video from a safe distance!
  • While it is tempting to want to help stranded dolphins, whales and turtles by pushing them back into the water, this can actually be more harmful to the animal.
  • Make a donation to a local stranding response organization. Events like this require a lot of basic equipment, supplies and fees for processing tissue samples.

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