Untamed Lowcountry

Beaufort boaters rescue a stranded dolphin. But was it the right thing to do?

Watch as Beaufort County boaters free a stranded dolphin

A group boating on the Chechessee River off Beaufort County waters stops to pull a dolphin off a mud flat. Stranding experts want people to make a phone call, rather than render aid.
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A group boating on the Chechessee River off Beaufort County waters stops to pull a dolphin off a mud flat. Stranding experts want people to make a phone call, rather than render aid.

An inaugural boat ride on the Chechessee River last week turned into an impromptu rescue mission Tuesday for a Beaufort County man.

Derek Skaggs was out on the river trying out his new boat with his girlfriend, Jessica Ireland, and a few friends.

Skaggs bought the boat from a buddy who had to relocate for a new job. It ran well, and after about an hour of sightseeing, Skaggs and his group made their way back to the Edgar Glenn Boat Landing near the Port Royal Sound Maritime Center.

They were about a half-mile away from the landing when they saw something flopping and flailing on a mud flat.

"As we got closer and realized it was a dolphin, the boys immediately jumped in to help it back into the water," Ireland said. "They left the one person who didn't know how to drive the boat in the boat."

Skaggs thought the tide was going out and that would have left the animal on the bank, out of the water and in the sun.

He believed he had to act fast.

Skaggs said the dolphin "didn't look injured, there were no marks."

It was a big animal — 8 to 10 feet long and 300 to 400 pounds.

"It was really hard to estimate. I'm originally from Kentucky. The biggest thing I've seen is a 20-pound catfish," he joked.

Skaggs tried grabbing the tail, but it was thrashing too much. He moved around to her head and talked to her, looking her in the eye.

"It made her more relaxed," he said.

"My friend was going to push from the front, but that almost got him bit."

Skaggs and Paa Kodwo Dowell chose the other end, grabbed the tail and pulled.

About two minutes later, the dolphin slipped off the embankment and swam away.

"I was expecting her skin to be more slimy, but it was more leather-like," Skaggs said.

A video that Ireland shot shows the men raising their arms in jubilation. Ireland can be heard cheering from the boat as the dolphin swam away.

While this story apparently ended well, it does raise concerns.

Experts say this sort of thing happens too often — and good intentions actually can cause greater harm.

Erin Fougeres, southeast marine mammal stranding program administrator with NOAA, says the first thing people want to do is get the stranded animals back into the water.

That, she said, is the No. 1 thing not to do.

Animals become stranded because they are sick or injured, she said. That means that when people push them back into the water, they are actually "delaying treatment."

"They'll re-strand in worse condition," she said.

Wayne McFee, a 25-year veteran research wildlife biologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration based in Charleston, agreed.

After watching the video, he offered advice for anyone who might encounter a similar situation.

McFee said the dolphin likely was strand feeding and got wedged onto the mud flat.

"We've had animals in this situation before, and high tide washes them out. (Dolphins) being out of the water is fine, they breathe air. It may have overheated a bit, but yesterday (Tuesday) wasn't that bad (though) the animal may have gotten sunburned. (We've) seen animals on mud flats for six hours."

The key, he said, is to call in the experts.

S.C. Department of Natural Resources has a wildlife hotline number, 800-922-5431, that boaters should program into their phones.

Fougeres suggested a NOAA number — 877-942-5343 — and a smartphone app called Dolphin & Whale 911. The NOAA app has been out for about two years and gives responders the animal's location coordinates when users upload photos.

"We have responders in the Beaufort County area who are trained to handle these situations." McFee said.

"They're covered legally under a permit. We don't want people to make these decisions on their own."