With a swish of his flipper, a dolphin named Octavius became the first to be rescued, rehabilitated and released back into the wild off Louisiana's coast. The rescued dolphin returned to the Gulf of Mexico on April 29 after five months of rehabilitation and medical monitoring in Louisiana.
The process from rescue to release was spearheaded by the Audubon Nature Institute and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) with assistance from the NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service and Chicago Zoological Society's Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.
After receiving a call from a private citizen regarding a washed up dolphin on Grand Isle Beach, biologists from the LDWF headed for the scene in October 2015 to see if the dolphin could be saved.
"We had a short window to diagnose whether the animal could be released or brought back to Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center (FMASSC) in New Orleans for treatment," said Audubon's Stranding and Rescue Coordinator Gabriella Vazquez. "He was lethargic and had short, shallow breaths. We attempted a soft release in the surf, but he showed no initiative to swim back into the Gulf."
The dolphin was transported to FMASSC where the process to get him ready for reintroduction to the ocean began.
Determining if the dolphin — named Octavius in honor of the veterinarian working most with him — was ready for release was a multi-step process. Octavius was monitored for behavioral challenges, ranging from swimming and breathing to becoming reliant on and desensitized to humans. Octavius demonstrated no such issues.
"Dolphins are very intelligent animals. Over time, they can learn to associate humans and boats as a source for food, which is why it is illegal to feed them in the wild," explained Mandy Tumlin, the Louisiana state stranding coordinator for marine mammals and sea turtles.
The next two steps Octavius had to clear dealt with his overall health. He demonstrated no signs of hearing impairment, a key component for dolphins' survival. In addition to hearing, veterinarians checked Octavius's blood for congenital defects or other medical problems that could make surviving in the wild more difficult.
Octavius passed all three of the steps related to release, but vets weren't through just yet. Because of his potential age — vets estimated Octavius to be between 1 and 7 years old — Octavius was affixed with a tag to the dorsal fin by Dr. Randy Wells, director of the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.
"The tag allows for satellite tracking as well as radio tracking. Since he could be a younger animal, this type of monitoring is necessary to ensure he is thriving back in the wild," said Tumlin.
After all of this, Octavius was transported to Barataria Bay where he was released and swam back into the ocean of his own volition.