The Dolphin Suicides

By now, most of us have heard about the unusually high number of dolphin strandings on a beach in Wellfleet. At last count, there were 129 total, with just 37 being released back to sea. But what no one can seem to tell us is why. By most accounts, dolphins are smart, social creatures, near the top of the ocean food chain, and well suited and adaptable. I mean, we go see these guys (or their cousins) performing complex routines at SeaWorld. Sociable intelligence is like the whole entire point of dolphins.

Yet in many of the responses and comments by researchers, scientists, and advocates — in other words, the exact people who usually go to bat for dolphins — it seems like maybe we have overestimated. Look at the evidence: Seemingly normal, seemingly healthy dolphins with no other obvious illness or defect are attempting to take to land like Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Necropsies on the deceased dolphins are pending, but while they are, the researchers are postulating that the animals, which began stranding about halfway through January, are following some social signal straight to the shore. It’s as if the dolphins, with their normal navigational systems gone haywire for whatever reason, are attempting to mirror one of the most ignoble animals around: the lemming.

Furthermore, scientists seem generally concerned about what comes after. In fact, they’ve affixed transceivers to some of them and continue to express concern that they might up and beeline back to the hook of the Cape and run aground again. That means the dolphins would be replicating their exact same effort yet hoping for a different outcome, which is the very definition of insanity (at least in humans).

According to scientists, the mass stranding shows no signs of letting up. The International Fund for Animal Welfare, a government-funded organization, is stationing volunteers near the mouth of the shallows in question hoping to dissuade any more creatures from making the same mistake — again. There’s evidence in the historical record that strandings are common, and the Cape is one of the busiest areas for cetacean stranding in the world.

But when it comes down to it, our understanding on marine mammals — even the ones we exalt, train, and name Flipper — is still frighteningly miniature. Hopefully, the large new sample of tissue from stranded dolphins that’s available to scientists will help shed some light on these questions. And hopefully, that’ll happen before there’s another 92 carcasses.