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This Mammal Is Making Waves in Clearwater Creek

A young dolphin's unexpected journey captivates locals as marine biologists race against time to guide it back to open waters, navigating human curiosity and legal boundaries.

dolphins unexpected journey


  • Local residents and a team of 28 biologists pulled out all the stops to protect and save a young dolphin swimming alone in a creek in Clearwater, FL
  • The biologists formed a human chain that created a visual and sound barrier for the dolphin to help guide it out of the creek and towards Tampa Bay
  • There are 40 different species of dolphin ranging from 4 to 25 feet in length, and from 90 to 20,000 pounds; dolphins are long-lived, with the massive orca living 70 to 80 years
  • Dolphins use a variety of methods to catch fish, and have even been known to team up with fisherman on the shore by driving fish into their nets
  • Dolphins are highly intelligent, active, playful, and very social; many dolphins establish strong social bonds with others in their group

On New Year’s Day 2023, local residents alerted the Clearwater (Florida) Marine Aquarium that a young dolphin was swimming alone in Clearwater creek. A team from the aquarium monitored the dolphin for 18 days to see if he would find his way back out to sea. However, he appeared in no hurry to return to open waters via a small opening under a bridge.

Brittany Baldrica, a senior rescue biologist with the aquarium, observed that the dolphin was behaving normally, but aquarium staff was concerned that he was separated from other animals. Since the creek is in a residential area, Baldrica was also concerned about the potential for human interaction with the dolphin, especially harassment. Aquarium staff knew that the longer he stayed in the creek, the more attention he would draw.

According to the aquarium, dolphins are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and harassment or attempting to feed them is illegal. Penalties for interacting with marine mammals include fines up to $100,000 and prison for up to one year.

Rescuers Form a Human Chain

The previous June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its partners had rescued another dolphin, Izzy, from Texas because after a few years of human interaction, her health had begun to decline. She was hit by boats, and also became so dependent on local residents for food that she no longer knew how to find her own food.

Izzy now lives at the aquarium, and everyone was concerned the dolphin in Clearwater creek might suffer a similar fate.

The NOAA Fisheries Service decided to intervene. A team of 28 biologists from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, NOAA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) formed a human chain that created a visual and sound barrier for the dolphin to help guide it out of the creek and towards Tampa Bay. As CNET reports:

“It's not easy to pull off a human chain in a creek. The biologists had to stay shoulder to shoulder and navigate trees and docks without giving the dolphin an opportunity to slip by. The human encouragement worked, though there was a moment of uncertainty as the team members neared the bridge and weren't sure if the dolphin went through.”1

And as Baldrica explained to Fox13 Tampa:

"The goal was to not put hands on the animal. The goal was to just be a barrier that was novel to the animal, so we wanted to create a physical barrier as well as an auditory barrier, so we had somebody behind us that was banging on a boat, revving their engine and then we were splashing the water and moving forward towards the animal, so we were giving the animal the option to swim through the bridge on its own.”2

The biologists were excited and relieved with the dolphin's arrival on the other side, and believe he stands a good chance back out in the wild. He’s in good body condition, with normal respiration rates, and displaying normal behavior.

The aquarium staff thanked the residents in the area who worked with them to help protect the animal from harassment and provided access to their property while they monitored and rescued the dolphin.

12 Fascinating Facts About Dolphins

  1. Dolphins are extremely intelligent marine mammals belonging to a family of toothed whales that also includes orcas and pilot whales. The name “whale” actually identifies several different types of marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The three groups make up what is known as the cetacean species.
  2. In everyday use, the term whale does not include dolphins or porpoises to ensure that the three groups are easily identifiable. All members of the cetacean species, regardless of their suborder, share several physical features, including flippers for swimming, a tail equipped with flukes that help navigate in the water, and blowholes for breathing.
  3. Being mammals, all cetaceans are warm-blooded, breathe air, bear offspring and produce milk.
  4. There are around 40 different species of dolphins, and they cover a wide range of sizes. The smallest is called Maui’s Dolphin, which grows to around 4 feet in length and 90 pounds. The largest dolphin is the orca, or killer whale. These big guys average about 25 feet in length and weigh just under 20,000 pounds. The bottlenose dolphin grows to about 8 feet, weighs between 450 and 640 pounds, and can live to be over 40. Orcas are known to live twice that long.
  5. Dolphins are found worldwide and live primarily in shallow areas of tropical and temperate oceans. Five freshwater species live in the world's rivers, the Ganges and Indus river dolphin, the Amazon river dolphin, the Araguaian river dolphin, the Bolivian river dolphin, and the Chinese river dolphin, also called the Baiji dolphin, which may be extinct.
  6. Dolphins are highly social creatures that live in groups, called pods, of from a dozen to up to several hundred. When gathered in a location with an abundant source of food, pods sometimes merge together temporarily, forming superpods of over 1,000 dolphins!

    Many dolphins establish strong social attachments and will stay with injured or ill members of the group, helping them to the surface of the water so they can breathe if necessary. There are also reports of dolphins protecting human swimmers from sharks by swimming in circles around them or rushing the sharks to shoo them away.

    On the flip side, dolphins can also be aggressive towards each other. Older males are typically covered with healed bite scars. Male bottlenose dolphins sometimes kill baby dolphins, and dolphins are also known to kill porpoises.
  7. Dolphins are carnivores, dining primarily on fish, squid, and crustaceans, though some of the larger species like the killer whale also feed on other marine mammals.
  8. Dolphins use echolocation to locate prey. They engage in a variety of hunting and feeding methods, including herding schools of fish into “bait balls,” chasing fish into shallow water where it is easier to catch them, and strand feeding in which fish are driven onto the beach. Dolphins will also tag along after seabirds, other whales and fishing boats to snatch up any fish that might get discarded.

    Dolphins have also been known to team up with humans to catch fish. In Laguna, Santa Catarina, Brazil, dolphins drive fish toward shore, where fishermen wait to cast their nets. The dolphins actually signal the fishermen when it’s time to cast their nets. What the dolphins get out of the deal are fish that don’t make it into the nets.3
  9. Dolphins are agile and playful. Many species leap out of the water seemingly just for fun, and “spy-hop” (rise straight out of the water to have a look around). They also “bow-ride,” swimming alongside ships, probably to conserve energy.
  10. Dolphin communication involves a variety of clicks, whistles, and other vocalizations, along with non-verbal signals like posturing and touch.
  11. Dolphins mate throughout the year. Length of gestation depends on the species, and ranges from 9 to 17 months. When it’s time to give birth, the female temporarily separates from the pod and often stays near the surface of the water.
  12. Mother dolphins usually have just one calf, and as soon as it is born, mom takes it quickly to the surface so it can take its first breath. Baby dolphins nurse from 1 to 2 years, and after weaning they stay with their mothers until they’re between 3 and 8 years old.

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