They lower the ladder first. Then the mesh sling. The silver bucket of fish stays on the side — for now.
“Ready?” the marine biologist asks, turning to her team. A veterinarian and four volunteers nod. They’re standing on a wooden deck, looking into what used to be a sewage treatment tank.
Three stories below, a baby dolphin named Nicholas is swimming slowly, clockwise, circling the concrete walls that have become his world.
Seldom shifting speed or direction, barely swishing his tail, he glides around and around and around the steep walls. Every two or three minutes, he surfaces to breathe.
The baby dolphin was sunburned over one-third of his body. His sleek, pewter skin is spongy and yellow-white from the base of his bottlenose all the way down his dorsal fin.
"Let's hope he eats a little better for us today," the biologist says, climbing down the ladder toward the warm water.
It's been almost a month now, and biologists aren't sure how long he can hold on. They're force-feeding the orphan chopped herring and antacids, giving him pain medicine and rubbing herbal balm on his burns. They're testing his blood, checking his heart and counting his breaths.
On the afternoon of Dec. 23, near Gibsonton, two fishermen found the dolphin and his mother struggling in ankle-deep water. The mother had beached herself. Her baby, who was nursing, had followed into the soft sand.
By the time the fishermen found them, the dolphins were badly sunburned. The fishermen took off their T-shirts, wet them in the bay and blanketed the mother's blisters. They tried to shield the baby with their shadows until Florida wildlife officials arrived.
Rescuers loaded the dolphins into a truck and settled them on wet, spongy mats. They drove them to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where biologists named them in honor of the holiday: Noelle and Nicholas.
"We continued to offer live and dead fish yesterday and this morning, but Noelle showed no interest in eating," aquarium director Dennis Kellenberger wrote Dec. 26. "Nicholas is strongly bonded to his mother and is receiving all his nutrition from her. His prognosis is also poor."
The next morning, Noelle was barely strong enough to breathe. Nicholas kept swimming under his mother, trying to nudge her to the surface for air.
"We must focus our attentions on Nicholas," the aquarium director wrote that night. "Formulas must be made and administered through a tube while we attempt to wean Nicholas to fish."
You could argue about whether all this is worth it — the time, the effort, the cost — to save one baby dolphin. Some might say the energy and money could do more good somewhere else. Why not volunteer with a Save the Dolphins group and work to help all of them? Why not donate to a Clean the Waterways organization and try to improve life for all marine animals?
Some might even question whether Nicholas' life should be saved. Was it nature's plan for him to die on the beach? Is a life in captivity any life at all?
But at the Clearwater aquarium, no one argues about whether they should help. No one asks why. The director, the vets and biologists, the dozens of volunteers don't worry about how much it will cost to keep Nicholas alive. Or where the money will come from.
"Okay, swing the sling this way. Lower!" biologist Melody Baran says, splashing along one side of the tank. The green mesh sling is supposed to hold Nicholas still so people can help him.
It's 10:30 a.m. on a sunny Thursday in mid January, the first warm day in more than a week. At the rescue tank behind the Clearwater aquarium, the second shift is just getting started.
For 26 days now, 24 hours a day, three marine biologists, two veterinarians, five aquarium staff members and 80 volunteers have been watching over the dolphin. They're working in four-hour shifts, on a raised outdoor platform, through the wind and the rain and the starless winter nights.
Every time Nicholas coughs, someone writes it down. Thursday, Jan. 9, 12 chuffs. Hanging around ladder. Possibly hungry. Every time he defecates, someone notes the time and consistency. 8:15 a.m., small amt. of dark green floating feces. Netted some to verify. If Nicholas bleats or turns over or changes direction, someone records it in the blue Calf Log.
While she opens the sling, another biologist, the vet and two volunteers climb down the ladder. They're wearing wet suits. They're carrying a silver dog whistle, a fistful of syringes and a pink plastic tray. The tray is filled with balms, antibiotics and test tubes. And the dolphin's plastic pill case: six compartments down, seven across — one for each feeding, for every day of the week.
As the people start walking through the waist-deep water, Nicholas swims toward them slowly. Biologist Glenn Harman steps backward, turns and goes at the dolphin from behind. He lunges for him, trying to grab his dorsal fin.
It takes six minutes for Harman to catch him, and when he does, Nicholas' huge scab rubs off on Harman's wet suit. A red river of dolphin blood spills into the turquoise water.
"Bleeding is good," Harman says. "That means there's no blockage or bad tissue on top of the wound. It shows there's fresh tissue still growing underneath it."
Robin Moore, the vet at the Clearwater aquarium, says she's never seen a dolphin burned as badly as Nicholas. So she consulted with a marine mammal nutritionist to find out how to wean the baby and get him to accept solid food. She called in a holistic veterinarian to help with alternative healing options. She asked a specialist in human burns from Tampa General Hospital about the best way to treat the dolphin's blisters.
"The doctor brought his assistant, and they got in the water to examine Nicholas," Moore says. "They talked to us about wound care and the importance of a high-protein diet for healing."
After Nicholas' mother died, the biologists tried to bottle-feed him. They shipped in bear milk from a company that supplies zoo food. Mixed in herbs, vitamins and chopped herring. "We tried using a rubber nipple made for feeding lambs," Baran says. "But baby dolphins' tongues are fluted around the edges. Nicholas just couldn't seem to get a good seal on that bottle." So they pumped the formula through a tube into the dolphin's throat. Six times a day.
Today is the first day they're going to try to keep him solely on solid food. "We have to start getting more calories into him," Moore, the vet, says.
While five people pin the dolphin inside the sling, the vet wipes his wound with a surgical swab. She sticks a needle through the thick muscle behind his blowhole and sucks out half a tube of blood. Then Nicholas starts writhing again, throwing off his captors. Very violent during first attempt, a volunteer writes in the Calf Log. Bent the needle.
Another volunteer climbs into the tank to help, and Moore draws two more tubes of blood. Then she injects Baytrill, a broad-spectrum antibiotic, near Nicholas' tail. She pulls out a stethoscope and listens to the dolphin's heart. A volunteer records the rate. Moore squirts a blue liquid, a topical antiseptic called Novateen, across the burn to clean it. She smears red-brown herbal ointment down the dolphin's back, to stave off infection.
During the 20-minute procedure, Nicholas keeps kicking, fighting, bleeding inside the mesh sling. He huffs air from his blowhole, short, rhythmic puffs that sound like protests. He cries like a kitten.
Bottlenose dolphins are the most common inshore marine mammal in the United States. Every year, hundreds wash up along American shores. Most are dead from natural causes.
"One out of every 100 dolphins that are stranded makes it," Harman says. "We're getting better at this. But we have a lot to learn."
Rescuers at the Clearwater aquarium have picked up 400 stranded animals in the past 20 years: dolphins and sea turtles, otters and whales. Only 50 of them were alive when they were reported. Half of those made it through some sort of rehabilitation. Seven have been released.
"Re-releasing dolphins to the wild has not been real successful," Harman says. "They get used to humans while they're in captivity. Then they come up to boats, solicit food from people. They get run over and get themselves killed."
The Clearwater aquarium has had some successes. Four years ago, biologists treated another mother and baby dolphin that washed up on Belleair Beach. After six months, they re-released the pair off Clearwater and tracked them by transmitters for 152 days. "So we know they made it at least that long," Baran says.
He's too young to know how to hunt fish, how to avoid sharks, barracudas and boats. Dolphins don't foster other dolphins' children, biologists say. "We can't just put him in a pod out there and think he'll be taken in," Baran says.
For the first year of his life, while Nicholas was swimming beside his mother, Tampa Bay was his playground; he had the whole Gulf of Mexico to explore. The sky swallowed him when he surfaced. The clouds were his ceiling.
Here, in this converted sewage tank, the baby dolphin is always alone. He's quarantined for at least four months, until the vet is sure he won't infect the aquarium's other animals. Even the fish he's fed are dead — no fun to play with.
And the sky is a small saucer above the towering concrete tank. Blue barely seeps around the edges of the black mesh the biologists strung overhead for shade. When Nicholas wants to see the sky, he has to roll over on his burned back and search for it.
Multivitamins and USDA-grade herring (chopped into bite-sized pieces, for baby dolphin teeth); cod liver oil and four tablets of Pepcid AC four times a day (to aid digestion); antibiotics and herbal supplements (from a health food store); butterfly bandages and extra-long syringes (to penetrate thick blubber). Nicholas' needs are enormous.
Add $50 to $100 a day for lab tests: biopsies of the wound (to check for infection); blood cultures (to check white blood cell levels and monitor for anemia). Add the cost of 10 pounds of North Atlantic capelin plus 5 pounds of frozen herring every day. Add a power bill, for the light above Nicholas' tank and filters for his pool and pumps that bring in saltwater from the Intracoastal Waterway. Add the cost of gas, for heating 160,000 gallons of water so the dolphin can use his energy for healing instead of trying to keep warm.
Biologists, vets and other employees are working 80-hour weeks to take care of the dolphin. Because the Clearwater aquarium operates mostly on admission fees and donations, they're not taking overtime pay. They'd rather the money help Nicholas.
"Most of the money for his care will have to come from donations," aquarium director Kellenberger says. Seven people have sent a total of $1,160 for Nicholas. More than 150,000 people have logged on to the aquarium's Web site to check on the dolphin's condition. Volunteers are pulling extra shifts, giving up their Christmas and New Year's vacations, calling in sick to dolphin-sit.
For others, it's an opportunity to feel like they're making a difference, a chance to see the fruits of their labor.
You can donate $500 to the World Wildlife Fund, one woman says, but you never really know what that donation is doing. When you spend four hours with Nicholas, you can at least see that he's still swimming, and eating, and breathing. And if he changes directions or gets constipated or starts panting, you can at least alert someone — in time, you hope.
"It's just an honor to be so close to such magnificent creatures," volunteer Mary Dean says. "Dolphins are just so smart. So cute. They seem so happy. The way their mouths tip up, they always look like they're smiling."
"You can't just let him die," Pat Myers says. She's a Largo mom who spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with the dolphin.
"It's up to us to at least try to counteract a small portion of the bad we've already inflicted on our world."
She sliced it herself, a half-pound of frozen herring filleted into 5-inch strips. Nicholas is still too young to swallow fish whole.
As the biologists enter his tank, the dolphin swims toward them, slowly. Maybe he's hungry. Maybe he notices they didn't drop the sling this time. Maybe he's lonely.
Dolphins are social creatures. They love to play in groups, to chase each other, diving and jumping waves.
"Here, we're his only playmates," Baran says. "When he feels like it, we throw toys into his pen: hula hoops and orange traffic cones. He really loves this one purple foam bumper."
Today, though, Nicholas doesn't seem to have much energy. So the biologists just walk around his pen, trailing the chopped fish with their fingers. The dolphin follows, swishing his tail.
Then Harman stops. He slaps the water. The sound echoes off the concrete, thundering three stories overhead.
Harman turns his hand, palm up, on the pool's surface. Nicholas swims over, tentatively. And whistles three high-pitched squeaks.
Then the dolphin arches out of the water and looks up at the biologist. He nudges Harman's hand with his burned bottlenose.
"He's come a long way," the biologist says. "He's showing a lot more interest now — in us and in food."
A half-hour later, the sun slips beneath the blue saucer of sky, leaving the old sewage tank dark and chilly.
The biologists climb out of the pool. They pull up the ladder. They put the empty silver bucket on the side — for now. They write: dinner, 3/4 pound capelin, 1/8 pound herring in the Calf Log.
If you see a stranded dolphin, do not attempt to shove it back into the water or move it. Cover it with a wet towel or T-shirt and try to keep it shaded and cool. Don't get water into the blowhole. Dolphins can drown that way. Call state wildlife officials or the Clearwater aquarium's stranding team: (727) 441-1790, ext. 233.
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For daily updates on Nicholas' condition, check the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Web site, www.cmaquarium.org. Visitors to the aquarium can't see the baby dolphin because he's too sick. He is in isolation, in an outdoor rescue tank.
To donate money to help the baby dolphin, send checks to: Christmas Dolphin, c/o the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Foundation, 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater, FL 33767-2244. Donations are tax-deductible. For more information, call the aquarium at (727) 441-1790.
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