SeaWorld Gives Rescued Dolphin Second Chance at Life

SeaWorld Gives Rescued Dolphin Second Chance at Life

10/23/2013 3:05:00 PM



SeaWorld’s animal rescue team and vets spent nearly five months nursing the sick dolphin back to health


SAN DIEGO (Oct. 23, 2013) – A young common dolphin named TJ, rescued on a beach near Tijuana in the spring, is thriving back in the ocean after being given a second chance at life at SeaWorld. Fitted with a satellite transmitter prior to being returned to the wild in early October, TJ was last monitored swimming more than 300 miles west of San Diego.

The male dolphin, estimated to be approximately one year old, was near death when he arrived at the park’s animal care center on May 14.   Severely dehydrated, malnourished and unable to swim on his own, SeaWorld’s animal care and veterinary staff were concerned about his chances for survival.

“The dolphin’s health was compromised,” said Dr. Todd Schmitt, SeaWorld’s senior veterinarian.  “His body condition was poor, he was initially unresponsive, and he was unable to swim or eat.  Although we knew he was very ill, we immediately began medical treatment to try to pull him back from the edge.”

 Because he was unable to swim on his own, the park’s animal care team designed a special floatation device for TJ to give him buoyancy in the water.  After a providing him broad spectrum of antibiotics, the struggling dolphin was tube-fed a solution of electrolytes as well as a nutrient-rich formula to help rehydrate and stabilize his condition.  Working in four-hour shifts, SeaWorld’s team of skilled animal care specialists spent 24 hours a day in a pool with TJ fighting to keep him alive.

“We initially had to provide 24-hour care for this animal,” said Jody Westberg, SeaWorld’s stranded animal coordinator. “This was an extremely weak, emaciated, lethargic animal, and it was important we were there to give the support it needed.”

Within a week, TJ’s condition stabilized slightly and he began eating small fish.  It was then decided to transport him from SeaWorld to a local hospital for an MRI to assess if he was suffering from any neurological disorders.  Test results were negative, however, an abscess was discovered in front of his right pectoral flipper and near his ear.  The abscess was treated with additional antibiotics.

Over the next several weeks TJ’s health continued to improve.  While SeaWorld’s animal care team maintained its round-the-clock, in-water care, the dolphin began to swim in short spurts on his own.  It was at this time he was moved to a larger deeper pool they hoped would encourage him to swim farther distances.

“Moving to a bigger pool was a key step in his recovery,” said Heather Ruce, a senior animal care specialist. “It was important for him to start rebuilding his stamina and endurance. This was something he could more readily do once we moved him to the larger pool.”

The young dolphin’s daily consumption of fish continued to increase and he grew stronger.  Although TJ was only 55 pounds when rescued, by August he had gained more 10 pounds. At this point, park officials felt that the prospects of TJ making a full recovery were for the first time realistic.   

With TJ’s recovery making steady progress and his return to the wild a likely possibility, SeaWorld rescue team slowly started to reduce their direct contact with him which was necessary to avoid him becoming overly attached to his human caregivers.  To survive back in the ocean, he would have to demonstrate that he could forage for food on his own and not develop a reliance of humans.

“It was critical that we minimized our close contact with TJ,” said senior animal care specialist Kortney Sanders. “He needed to show us that he could survive on his own and not with our assistance.”

With the constraint to no longer hand-feed TJ, park staff began delivering fish into his rehabilitation pool through a long 2-inch pipe.  Starting initially with dead fish, live fish were ultimately introduced to the dolphin’s pool.  The animal care team also introduced natural enrichment objects to his pool like kelp that he would find off the coast of Southern California.

His consumption of live fish had steadily increased and by mid-September plans were being made to return TJ to his ocean home.  The park’s carpenters built a transport unit specially designed for the young dolphin.  It would be this unit that would carry TJ in the park’s rescue boat back out to sea.

On Oct. 8, after nearly five months of medical care and rehabilitation at SeaWorld, TJ, who now weighed more than 75 pounds, was ready to return to the ocean. A small aircraft flew just off the San Diego coast looking for a pod of common dolphins. Once located, the pilot radioed a boat carrying members of the park’s rescue team to verify the pod was the correct dolphin species.  Once confirmed, a second boat used to transport TJ was called into the location where the massive pod was located. 

TJ was gently lifted from his transport unit by two of his caregivers, guided through opening in the side of the boat, and within seconds disappeared into the ocean swimming in the direction of the dolphin pod.  Shortly after his return, TJ’s attached satellite tracking device began to periodically transmit signals that generally marked his location at sea.

“The day we returned TJ to the wild was the accumulation of a lot of emotions for me,” said Westberg. “The time, the effort, the energy, the passion the people I work with put into rehabilitating this common dolphin; it all came to fruition in that one moment when we were able to give this dolphin a second chance at life.”

 In the first few days following his return, TJ was monitored swimming between 30 and 80 miles off the coast. Over the past week, however, he has progressed farther out to sea and was monitored more than 300 miles from San Diego on Oct. 21.

It is hoped that the satellite transmitter will allow scientists at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute to monitor TJ’s progress, location and the depths of his dives for the next several months.  The transmitter, which does not interfere with his ability to swim or forage, will eventually fall off.

“Besides providing information on the fate and dive performance of this one dolphin, these kinds of studies tell us about the habitats that are important to the species,” said Dr. Pam Yochem, executive vice president and the director of physiology and ocean health programs at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute. “We will evaluate his movements relative to data collected by satellites on ocean water temperature and productivity to get the complete picture.”

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment inspires millions, through the power of entertainment, to celebrate, connect with and care for the natural world. The company has been creating innovative entertainment experiences that blend imagination with nature for more than 50 years and is best known for its 11 U.S. theme parks, attractions that hosted more than 24 million guests in 2012 and include the beloved SeaWorld, Busch Gardens® and Sesame Place® brands.  The parks offer guests a variety of up-close experiences, from animal encounters that invite exploration and appreciation of the natural world, to thrilling rides and spectacular shows.  In 2011 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment began expanding its popular brands into media and entertainment platforms to connect people to nature and animals through movies, television, and digital media; plus began developing new lines of licensed consumer products. 

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is one of the world’s foremost zoological organizations and a global leader in animal welfare, training, husbandry and veterinary care.  The company maintains one of the largest animal collections in the world and has helped lead advances in the care of species in zoological facilities and in the conservation of wild populations. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment also operates one of the world’s most respected programs to rescue and rehabilitate ocean marine animals that are ill, injured and orphaned, with the goal of returning them to the wild. The SeaWorld rescue team has helped more than 22,000 animals in need over the last four decades. 

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment employs more than 21,000 people nationwide.