- Associated Press - Thursday, February 16, 2012

WELLFLEET, Mass. There’s no good spot on Cape Cod for dolphins to beach themselves, but on this cold, gray day a group of 11 has chosen one of the worst.

The remote inlet down Wellfleet’s Herring River is a place where the tides recede fast and far, leaving the animals mired in a grayish-brown mud one local calls “Wellfleet mayonnaise.”

Walking is the only way to reach the animals, but it’s not easy. Rescuers crunch through cord grass and seashells before hitting a grabby muck that releases footsteps with a sucking pop. One volunteer hits a thigh-deep hole and tumbles forward.

It’s a scene that’s played itself out all winter long, and scientists have no idea why. A year ago, the 11 dolphins that stranded themselves Tuesday would have been a remarkable number. Now they’re just added to an ever-growing tally.

In the past month, 178 short-beaked common dolphins have been stranded on Cape Cod, and 125 have died. The total is nearly five times the average of 37 common dolphins that have been stranded each of the past 12 years.

Workers at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which has led the rescue efforts, tag and take blood from the stranded animals. Necropsies have been done on dead dolphins and a congressional briefing was held this month in the quest for answers. But researchers can offer only theories such as changes in weather, water temperature or behavior of the dolphins’ prey.

Geography may also play a role, if the dolphins are getting lost along the Cape’s jagged inner coastline in towns like Wellfleet.

Wellfleet in mid-February feels like a place long emptied out after a dimly remembered party. A drive into town takes you past a closed minigolf course, candy store and drive-in theater. A downtown road rolls by shuttered cottages and motel cabins.

But Wellfleet is a hot spot for the dolphin strandings, in part because of features such as Jeremy Point, a thin peninsula that blocks the way to Cape Cod Bay if the dolphins wander too far into the town’s harbor, as they did on Tuesday.

Rescuers in orange vests and black wader boots work in pairs to move the dolphins on slings, bringing them closer together and pointing the right way.

“We’ll take advantage of the fact that they’re social animals,” says Kerry Branon, a fund spokeswoman. “We’re hoping if we release them together, they’ll stick together and then we’ll herd them out around the point.”

The inlet continues to fill and the dolphins break into waters that are deeper than the rescuers can follow, but they’re in two groups. The IFAW’s boat eventually follows one group, or pod, and the Wellfleet harbormaster takes another. The noise from the motors pushes the dolphins ahead. So do acoustic pingers, devices that make a sound that annoys the dolphins.

Mike Giblin, muck still on his face, sits in his truck and explains why, at 64, he can’t wait to get an early-morning call asking him to volunteer to help with the dolphins. The animals are special, says the retired high school teacher. He says the dolphins somehow know the workers are there to help. He’s certain of it.

But fellow rescue worker Katie Moore dismisses any talk of a mystical link with the animals she is struggling to save.

“They’re wild animals,” she says. “This is not comforting for them. They don’t want to be touched.”

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