A new emergency room for dolphins at the University of Hawaii at Hilo lost its first patient yesterday afternoon with the death of a critically injured striped dolphin found floundering on the rocks near the fishing village of Milolii.
When the adult male dolphin was discovered early Monday afternoon, it was struggling to keep afloat and had deep gashes on its beak. Veterinarians at the Hawaii Cetacean Response Facility believe the dolphin suffered from an acute viral infection and was attempting to find shelter along the coast to avoid drowning.
"The animal was very sick," said Marine Mammal Response Coordinator David Schofield, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "(Its death) doesn’t come as much of a surprise."
In addition to running X-rays and diagnostic tests, veterinarians in Hilo administered steroids and antibiotics to the animal.
At the time of its death, the dolphin was receiving around-the-clock care from a team of UH students and professors, veterinarians from the response facility, and community volunteers. The facility was also working closely with Hawaiian cultural practitioners to ensure that all medical treatment was being handled in a culturally sensitive manner.
"A lot of people were pulling for it," Schofield said. "I’m grateful for all of the team’s hard work."
Despite its death, the dolphin made a significant impact on the response facility and the veterinary team. The animal was the first patient to be admitted to the facility, which Schofield describes as an intensive-care unit for marine mammals.
The treatment program was in development for a year before its launch in February. The facility, the only one of its kind in the state, is equipped to treat up to three critically injured animals at a time and works closely with the Coast Guard to rescue injured whales, dolphins and porpoises — known as cetaceans — from across the state. The response facility has also set up temporary holding tanks for injured animals on each of the neighbor islands.
The veterinary team plans to conduct a full necropsy on the dolphin to determine the exact cause of death and what it might mean for the local marine ecosystem.
"It’s a good opportunity for the students to learn," Schofield said.
He commended the residents of Milolii for alerting the response facility rather than attempting to help the animal themselves. Although people have a natural tendency to push beached dolphins back out to sea, Schofield said that could prove fatal for animals too weak to swim.
"Dolphins coming ashore are doing so because they can’t support themselves," he said. "These animals are coming in for a reason."