Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network

Dedicated to the conservation of marine mammals through rescue and rehabilitation, research and education.


October 15 - 2009 - Copano Bay Dolphin Intervention- “Pilgrim” - PA857

TMMSN has been tracking a bottlenose dolphin in trouble that has now come to be known as “Pilgrim” near the Copano Fishing Pier in Rockport, TX. The monitoring efforts have been consistent since the first report in late August of a dolphin that was dragging fishing gear on his tail. In regular observations over the next several weeks, TMMSN found that the animal approached the Copano pier frequently in the evenings but during repeated daytime surveys, Pilgrim did not reveal his location. Conducting a rescue effort in a body of water this size would typically require a large scale net capture, however an effort of this nature would not be safe for personnel to attempt at night.

Frequent photo documentation revealed that the animal was becoming thin (likely due to the weighted gear) and had limited use of his tail. NMFS deemed the entanglement as life threatening and approved a disentanglement effort that did not involve the use of a net. A small group of TMMSN staff and volunteers were given special instruction and precautionary limitations by NMFS to limit personal injury during the operation.

TMMSN launched the rescue Zodiac craft in the water just before dark on October 13th. The plan was to hook and cut the gear trailing from his tail with a special disentanglement tool. Like clockwork, Pilgrim showed up at the fishing pier just before sunset. Our goal was to act swiftly and quietly so as not to place additional stress on the animal. After observing the dolphin’s behavior and swim pattern carefully, staff was placed in the water near the bridge and within moments Pilgrim presented himself and he was safely secured by experienced and highly trained staff and volunteers (without the use of a net).

After the animal and staff were secure in the water, the animal’s body condition and health were evaluated. The dolphin had two large entangled masses of gear, seaweed and a decomposing fish (thought to be a speckled trout from earlier observations)trailing from his tail, much of which was wrapped tightly around his flukes. The fishing gear included monofilament line, lead weights, fishing lures, hooks, beads, and steel wire. All of this gear was impeding the dolphin’s natural movements and it was carefully removed. After the gear was removed and a brief consultation with NMFS, Pilgrim was successfully released back into his wild environment where our hope is that with a lighter load to carry, he’ll be able to maneuver and feed naturally. Sightings of Pilgrim since the release have been consistent with his previous patterns and will likely allow for effective monitoring.

This rescue effort would not have been possible without the strength and determination of the TMMSN team and the public to help this dolphin. Volunteers and locals in the Rockport area spent countless hours tracking the dolphin's pattern, condition and location in order to make this a success.

Witnesses reported on October 15, 2009, that Pilgrim appears to be swimming with renewed vigor with better use of his flukes.

IMG_0004_600w.jpg (52057 bytes) IMG_0005_600w.jpg (53731 bytes) ID shot_600w.jpg (45599 bytes) Tangled fluke 2_600w.jpg (44052 bytes)
Blow hole - dorsal scars_600w.jpg (48950 bytes) Entangled Flukes_600w.jpg (35878 bytes) Swimming the boat.jpg (158744 bytes) Initial Assessment.jpg (179266 bytes)
Getting into position.jpg (183755 bytes) Hold him steady.jpg (149311 bytes) Holding on to Pier and Dolphin.jpg (164166 bytes) Cutting off the line.jpg (166606 bytes)
Pilgrim is Released.jpg (152199 bytes)

This fishing gear, including a decomposing speckled trout, which weighs about 1/2 pound when dry, was tangled and embedded in Pilgrim's flukes.

The next day, TMMSN volunteers went back out to the Copano pier and spent some time cutting down loose fishing gear hanging from the bridge, some of which still had fish attached. In a very short period of time a bucket full of gear was filled and the work could seemingly go on for days before all the discarded gear was collected.

Pilgrim is able to catch and eat fish without assistance.
 Photo Credit: Drew Scerbo

copano pier_600w.jpg (37703 bytes) launching the zodiac_600w.jpg (47752 bytes) view from the bow_600w.jpg (41529 bytes) entangled gear_600w.jpg (53376 bytes) discarded gear_600w.jpg (66405 bytes)