Saving Marcos: One Day at a Time
By Ric O’Barry
Earth Island Institute
When my colleague from Earth Island Institute, Mark Palmer, was planning to join me here in Almerimar, Spain, with the effort to save little Marcos, a baby striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba), I told him things changed almost on a daily basis.
My words were, as it turned out, an understatement!
Palmer arrived to a very nice warm day in the sun in the south of Spain, and spent several hours photographing Marcos in his quiet green and blue sea pen and the operations of the local grassroots stranding network PROMAR, the leaders of this effort.
In the afternoon, Palmer jumped into the roiling waters of the sea pen, now a dirty brown, helping the PROMAR volunteers trying to bring Marcos back into the sea pen after large waves whipped up by strong offshore winds buckled the sea pen’s net and allowed his escape. (The effort was a success, and Marcos is back in his pen.)
Talk about changes!
I was still in Japan, working with our Japanese Cove Monitors in Taiji, when PROMAR contacted me via e-mail about helping them with Marcos.
More than three months ago, on August 20th, the Spanish Civil Guard discovered Marcos trying to enter a small harbor just a few miles away from Almerimar. They contacted PROMAR, which runs a shoestring operation to save stranded sea turtles, marine mammals, and other marine species along this spectacular coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They also conduct research and advocate for whale and dolphin protection.
Poor Marcos was very emaciated, and could hardly move his tail in swimming. PROMAR showed me some underwater video they took of Marcos in these first days – his tail barely moves as he tries to surface and breath, and he was actually swimming into the arms of volunteers who held him up to breath more easily at the surface.
Marcos the striped dolphin in his sea pen with the PROMAR camp on the beach in the background. Photo by Mark J. Palmer, Earth Island Institute.
Today, Marcos is a very healthy young dolphin, chasing and catching fish, and swimming about his sea pen with ease. His blood work is looking very good. There are plans to release him at some point, but that depends on several very difficult problems.
Photo of Marcos by Mark J. Palmer, Earth Island Institute.
This is a remarkable achievement; indeed, few striped dolphins have ever been held successfully in captivity, much less improved their health to the point where they could be released back into the ocean. Most experts would say what PROMAR has accomplished is impossible! All on a tiny budget with volunteer labor. This is not my project – it belongs to PROMAR, and I and Earth Island’s Dolphin Project are just here to help out as I can with advise, hopefully some media attention, and encouraging donations to help cover PROMAR’s many expenses.
Little Marcos is the world’s cutest dolphin, in my humble opinion. He’s little more than three feet long. He will rub up against you, especially if you are wearing a pair of the rubber waders that feel so much like the skin of a dolphin.
We don’t know what happened to separate Marcos from his mother and his pod. Striped dolphins are deep-water dolphins and seldom come this close to land. That is part of the difficulty of returning him to his ocean home. In my opinion, if Marcos should escape or be released here in Almerimar, he would likely be attacked by sharks or beat up by the local coastal bottlenose dolphins, which are much bigger than striped dolphins. Finding his mother and his home pod is likely impossible.
Alexander Sanchez, Eva Ma Moran Manchado, and Ric O'Barry in the PROMAR camp tent, donated by the Spanish Red Cross. Photo by Mark J. Palmer, Earth Island Institute.
So, in order to successfully released Marcos, PROMAR must first go out on the ocean, preferably in a donated helicopter or airplane (PROMAR cannot afford to pay for such an extravagance) and find a pod of striped dolphins in deep water. They must then tow Marcos out to the area in a boat (or perhaps fly him out in a helicopter), and again find the pod to release him back with his own species, who can adopt him and protect him from sharks and other dolphin species.
But adoption is not assured, and little Marcos likely cannot make it without the support of a pod. So PROMAR must also purchase a satellite tag (for around $1,700 plus a monthly data service fee) to track Marcos and make sure he is OK. If he is not doing well, then PROMAR must go out and try to catch him, and start all over again.
But it is likely all this will have to take place next spring, when striped dolphins are closer to shore, and weather conditions are good for a release. In the meantime, there are greater immediate headaches.
Marcos’ sea pen has been up in the harbor here for three months. It is heavy with seaweed, which causes the net to billow and sway to the heavy currents and waves from storms. As winter continues here, the strain on the net will become more and more of a problem. This place is too exposed.
A study in contrasts: In the morning, Mark Palmer with Marcos on a sunny day with a light breeze. Photo by Ric O'Barry, Earth Island Institute.
In the afternoon, swept by winds and waves, Palmer (on far left) helps PROMAR team secure the sea pen net after a wandering Marcos is brought back in. Photo by Ric O'Barry, Earth Island Institute.
PROMAR, again with volunteer labor and largely donated materials, built a new bigger sea pen for Marcos a few miles away, where there wasn’t any boat traffic or harbor pollution. But that sea pen also buckled in the recent windstorm and is too exposed, too.
So, Marcos can’t really stay where he is, but there is no alternative sea pen or protected area that could serve as an immediate new location. PROMAR must make some very hard decisions over the next few weeks, all the time closely monitoring and feeding Marcos, keeping him healthy and building up his strength for eventual release. It’s a tall order.
Spain has more captive dolphins in aquariums than any other place in Europe. The captivity industry is strong here, and PROMAR is well aware that the industry does not like what they are doing and are hoping PROMAR fails.
A boat passes by the Marcos sea pen; boat noise and potentially pollution from the local marina, as well as exposure to the wind and waves of storms, make the sea pen particularly precarious. Photo by Mark J. Palmer, Earth Island Institute.
But PROMAR is absolutely opposed to allowing Marcos to go into a captive aquarium where he will spend the rest of his days neither with any striped dolphin companions nor with the freedom of the seas.
PROMAR is the real thing. I encourage you to donate funds to help save little Marcos. They are trying to do the right thing under very difficult conditions, and they have succeeded where many others have failed.
I’ll be blogging more about Marcos as things progress over the next few weeks.
Ric watches as Anca Corcodel, veterinarian, feeds Marcos. The dedication of the volunteers at PROMAR is outstanding. Photo by Mark J. Palmer.
My deep thanks to the efforts of PROMAR, especially Eva and Paco, veterinarian Anca, student Alexander, and the many other volunteer too numerous to mention, for hosting me here and working so hard and so effectively to save Marcos.
Help Promar: Cajamar
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Photos by Ric O’Barry and Mark J. Palmer, Earth Island Institute.