At 9:00 am on Thursday, April 19 2002, Delfin Amor Eco Lodge and Marine Education Center, in Drake Bay, received a call from Costa Rica Adventure Divers, another lodge in the area, asking us to come help them with a dolphin who was trying to beach herself out in front of their location.
The dolphin had already tried to beach herself twice, getting scrapes and scratches along her body from the rocks and sand. Staff members of Costa Rica Adventure Divers had put her onto a boat and taken her out half a mile or so to see if she would swim out, but she turned around and swam back in to shore.
When we arrived, the dolphin was swimming back and forth along the beach. A couple of times she turned towards the open ocean, but immediately would turn back towards the shore. She finally swam into shallow waters, beaching herself again. We got a hold of her and kept her from rolling in the sand and over the rocks. Our marine biologist called the marine stranding center in San Jose for advice. We were told to get her into a salt-water pool and they would arrive later in the day to give her a check up and find out if she was sick and then make a determination what to do. Luckily, Drake Bay Wilderness Resort had just built a seaside cement pool, filled with ocean water for SCUBA instruction. It was perfect for this situation.
We fashioned a sling out of an old sheet, cutting holes for her pectoral fins, carefully placed her in our boat, and slowly traveled the short distance to Drake Bay Wilderness Resort. We got her into the pool and held on to her, not wanting to let her loose and have her swim into the walls. Dolphins do not comprehend closed spaces very easily. As we waited for the veterinarians to arrive, we checked our dolphin identification book and verified from her beautiful markings that she was a Striped Dolphin. In all of our tours, we have never seen a Striped Dolphin. They tend to be in very deep waters, far from shore.
We held her, talked to her and sang to her. Alecia Evans, volunteer at Delfin Amor, began to hum “Amazing Grace” and it became the theme song and name of this truly special dolphin. Grace responded positively to our humming, putting her rostrum into our hand, relaxing her breathing, and even nudging us with her pectoral fins when we would stop.
At about 5:00 pm came the news that the veterinarians could not get a flight and were going to drive. They would arrive sometime in the night. Staff, volunteers and guests from Delfin Amor continued to take shifts with Grace, along with people from Drake Bay Wilderness Resort, Aguila de Osa and Costa Rica Adventure Divers, counting her breaths and heart rate every half hour.
As the day and night passed, everyone who entered the water felt a special closeness with Grace. She seemed to understand that we were trying to help her, and aside from stretching, did not try to get free. Dolphins are extremely powerful, and if she wanted to, she could have freed herself. We were doing nothing more than keeping her afloat, staying with her, giving her all the love we could. We were all amazed how quickly her skin healed from her cuts and scrapes. Literally right before our eyes. Her body’s healing properties seemed to be working.
People from all over Drake Bay came to see Grace. Many children got into the water with her, their first opportunity to see a live dolphin up close. They all had questions about her, how dolphins live, breathe, eat, and we happily answered them. We explained how pollution is harming the oceans, and that perhaps Grace was sick because of some chemical or trash that had been dumped into the water. Or maybe she had lost her pod due to man-made sonar testing for oil, confusing her and damaging her delicate sonar system. The children listened intently, eager to learn more about dolphins. Perhaps one of these children will become a marine biologist because of their encounter with Grace. It would be just one of the many gifts she left with us.
Morning dawned and exhausted staffers from Delfin Amor, who had only slept a couple of hours between shifts, were informed that the veterinarians’ car had broken down on the way to Drake Bay and that they would not be coming. So, Grace’s fate was up to us. Our first thought was to take her out on our boat and find a pod of dolphins to release her with them. However, a dolphin’s body is not made to support it’s own weight, they are meant to be in water, and you can easily crush their organs if you do not transport them correctly. That means having all the right equipment. We do not have such equipment; so taking her on the boat was out.
We knew we had to get her out of the increasingly dirty pool as soon as possible, especially since she would not eat the live fish we brought her. We decided to wait until high tide to take her back out to the ocean and hope that she would swim away. We all had very mixed feelings, not knowing if we were doing the right thing, but without outside help, we didn’t have much choice.
Some of the children from the day before returned, letting us know that they had prayed for Grace during the night. We told them how much their prayers had helped.
We wondered why a dolphin usually found in deep off shore waters had swum so far to beach herself in a populated area. There are hundreds of miles of beach where no one would have found her if she wanted to die alone. Why come here? Was there a message she was trying to give us? A lesson she wanted us to learn?
I spoke to Grace in my own way, letting her know what we were going to do, encouraging her, and telling her that if she still wanted to die, we were not going to intervene, but to please go to an unpopulated beach where we wouldn’t find her. I let her know that if she had come to die here for a reason, to wake us all up, her mission had been completed. She could go now. And if she wanted to live, but could not find her pod, she could return here, where people loved her. The scientists tell us that dolphins are as intelligent as humans, and I truly believe that Grace understood me.
High tide came and we lifted her out of the pool and carried her the short distance to the beach. When we got her into the water, she wouldn’t swim, so we swam her out further and further from shore, keeping her supported and above water. When we would let her go, she would sink down vertically. We lifted her back up and talked words of encouragement to her. “Come on, Grace, you can do it. You remember how to swim, you can find your pod, COME ON, you can do it!”
Those of us who were still close to Grace watched as she made the decision to swim. She just started swimming. We followed her the best we could, but she doubled back and swam for shore, close to rocks where we could not go. Then she turned again towards the open ocean as we called more words of encouragement to her. She swam back and forth several times, and we felt she was again making a decision. “We love you, Grace! Please swim out, please go home!” She swam past us for the last time, and we watched and cheered as she headed out, farther and farther, until we couldn’t see her anymore.
We may never know what happened to Grace. There were unconfirmed sightings of her in Drake Bay the day after she left, so perhaps she is going to stick around, deciding that this is not such a bad place with all these people who love her. Perhaps she kept swimming until she found her pod. Maybe she was too sick to live, and her message delivered here, beached herself where we will never find her. Whatever is the case, those of us at Delfin Amor will be looking for her every time we go out on our dolphin and whale encounters, hoping to meet our dear friend again.
As all dolphins are, Grace was a master of getting people to work together. It took the cooperation of four hotels in this area to take care of Grace. Drake Bay Wilderness Resort was wonderful in taking care of the Delfin Amor staff during our vigil, bringing us food, letting use their showers, beds and phone and of course, their saltwater pool. Staff of Aguila de Osa, Costa Rica Adventure Divers (Jinetes de Osa), Delfin Amor Eco Lodge and Marine Education Center, and Drake Bay Wilderness Resort participated in the shifts.
Grace also brought to light the need for better stranding and rehabilitation facilities for marine mammals in Costa Rica. For a country that is as rich in cetaceans as Costa Rica, a generously staffed, fully equipped marine mammal stranding center is necessary, probably more than one for each coast. A network needs to be formed to handle strandings in the future so inexperienced people do not have to face the situation alone.
Grace practically started our program to educate the local children about cetaceans herself, as they are now eager to learn more about dolphins. We only need to continue it now. Thanks, Grace.
Grace also further deepened Delfin Amor Marine Education Center’s commitment to protect these waters and to educate people about cetaceans and the damage we are causing to the ocean with pollution, over-fishing and man-made sonar. There are over twenty-five species of dolphins and whales that can be found in the Osa Peninsula area alone, yet except for small areas around Cano Island and Corcovado National Park, these waters are unprotected. And even for the protected areas, there is little or no enforcement. For a country so proud of protecting it’s wildlife, one wonders how that can be. Especially after meeting a dolphin like Grace.
It would seem that the dolphins are giving us messages to help them and the whales from the destruction of our oceans. It became even clearer to us at Delfin Amor that part of the answer is taking people to see the dolphins and whales in their natural habitats, because once people see them wild and free, up close, they become committed to their protection and preservation. You cannot meet a dolphin like Grace, or like the Spinners, or like Osa, the baby humpback we saw since the day she was born, and not be touched. The dolphins and whales can speak for themselves, in the only way they know how, with Amazing Grace. We only need to listen.