Frequently Asked Questions

stranded marine mammal

  1. What is a marine mammal stranding?
  2. Why do marine mammals strand?
  3. What is the difference between the stranding network and a rehabilitation program?
  4. How many strandings does South Carolina have per year?
  5. What species are most commonly involved in strandings?
  6. What are the different classifications of strandings?
  7. Do strandings occur more frequently during any one season?
  8. Do strandings occur more frequently in a certain area?
  9. Why can't you just push the animal back in the water?
  10. How do you determine the sex and age of the animal?
  11. Is it OK to pet or feed a dolphin that I see in the wild?
  12. What is strand feeding?
  13. Who makes up the stranding network team? What is the main agency involved?
  14. How are the stranding networks funded?
  15. What should I do if I encounter a stranded animal?
  16. Where can I find more information on stranding networks?
  17. How can I become involved with a stranding network?
  18. How can I pursue this as a potential career?
  19. Can someone come talk to my students about marine mammals?





  1. What is a marine mammal stranding?
  2. A stranding occurs when a marine mammal, whether alive or dead, is on the shore. This can occur on a sandy beach, a rocky coast, a marsh, a bulkhead, a river bank, or anywhere the water meets the land.
  3. Why do marine mammals strand?
  4. Most strandings are single animals or mother/calf pairs who are sick or injured. Most strandings in South Carolina are dead animals, or they at least died before they were found. Natural causes of death can include disease such as viruses, pneumonia, etc., pathologies such as cancer or heart conditions, birth defects, old age, heavy parasite loads, predation (shark bites), defensive attacks (stingray spines), injuries from other dolphins (some instances of infanticide have been documented), natural biotoxins such as those from red tides, temperature stress (such as manatees too far north in winter), malnourishment, and others. The immune systems of marine mammals can be suppressed by long-term exposure to human-produced toxins in the environment, such as PCBs and some metals (these accumulate in the tissues of top predators). This makes it hard to determine whether the real cause of death was something like pneumonia and a heavy parasite load, or immunosuppression that may have enabled those conditions. About 25% of bottlenose dolphins strand with evidence of human interaction such as rope, monofilament fishing line, or net entanglements, ingested plastics, injested hooks and lures, boat and propeller strikes, etc. This percentage is based on animals who were in good enough condition to clearly determine evidence for interaction. If many strandings occur over several days or weeks, it is labeled an "Unusual Mortality Event" and is thoroughly investigated. Often these are the result of a disease epidemic in the population, or exposure to a harmful algal bloom such as a large red tide. Sometimes, a large pod of apparently healthy odontocetes will strand as a group, termed a "Mass Stranding." Multiple theories exist to explain this phenomenon, but no one knows for sure. A common denominator is that mass strandings usually occur with offshore species, like pilot whales, which may be disoriented in a world with boundaries when they follow prey resources into unfamiliar shallow waters. Mass strandings are not uncommon in certain regions, such as Cape Cod or Florida, but they generally have not occurred in South Carolina.
  5. What is the difference between the stranding network and a rehabilitation program?
  6. A stranding network responds to strandings in the field and typically conducts necropsies on dead animals. Live animals may be either euthanized, released, or rehabilitated based on their condition. Single live strandings without treatable injuries are usually sick and dying and are generally cannot be rehabilitated, so they are usually euthanized. This is the case with most live strandings in South Carolina. Apparently healthy animals that are simply out of their normal habitat or can be disentangled from gear may simply be released. Some states have rehabilitation facilities where they can treat animals deemed to have a likely chance of survival. These are especially common in areas with frequent pinniped strandings (seals and sea lions), treatable injuries (some manatee boat strikes in Florida), and mass strandings (where many animals are basically healthy). None of these scenarios is common in South Carolina, so we do not have a rehabilitation facility.
  7. How many strandings does South Carolina have per year?
  8. The number varies from year to year, but we had an average of 52 marine mammal strandings per year from 1998-2008.
  9. What species are most commonly involved in strandings?
  10. 80% of all South Carolina strandings are bottlenose dolphins. This is our only common inshore marine mammal. The 2nd and 3rd most common strandings are pygmy and dwarf sperm whales (>10%). Remaining species are mainly members of the dolphin and beaked whale families, large whales (about one every two years), and the occasional seal. Summary tables can be found on our education and research pages.
  11. What are the different classifications of strandings?
  12. Strandings are classified according to 5 codes: 1 – alive; 2 – freshly dead; 3 – moderate decomposition; 4 – advanced decomposition; 5 – mummified/skeletal
  13. Do strandings occur more frequently during any one season?
  14. Stranding patterns are bimodal in South Carolina, especially for newborn calves, with a peak in the fall and another in the late spring. This is likely related to a large migratory peak of dolphins in the northern third of the state in the fall and a likely peak in calving for resident salt marsh dolphins in the spring/early summer.
  15. Do strandings occur more frequently in a certain area?
  16. Strandings are common in the central and southern third of the state, but the northern "Grand Strand," with fewer inlets, marshes, and bays, has a lower number of strandings.
  17. Why can't you just push the animal back in the water?
  18. Stranded marine mammals are typically sick or injured and have stranded for a reason. They are not simply stuck there and will swim off if you free them. If you push them off, they will simply re-strand further down the beach. This may expose compromised animals to increased risk of predation in the nearshore waters, and it means that all the people and resources that were mobilized for a stranding will need to be re-mobilized a second time. It is better for the animal and for the people who are trying to help it to let it stay on the beach and attend to it as soon as possible.
  19. How do you determine the sex and age of the animal?
  20. Sex can be visually determined by examining the ventral side (belly) of a dolphin or whale. Genitalia are hidden with slits or grooves, but in males the genital slit is separate and forward of the anal slit, and in females the two run together and two smaller mammary slits are on either side of the genital/anal slit. Age in toothed whales and seals is determined by sectioning a tooth and counting annual growth rings laid down on the inside. Aging baleen whales is difficult because they do not have any teeth.
  21. Is it OK to pet or feed a dolphin that I see in the wild?
  22. Absolutely not! One reason is ethical and the other is legal. Feeding wild animals alters their natural behavior, causing them to expose themselves and humans to increased danger. Dolphins in some areas have become "beggars" because they are fed more often. These animals have increased likelihood of injury from boats and props, and are often fed inappropriate foods. People are sometimes bitten by these animals as they go for offered treats. A begging dolphin at your boat is certainly fascinating, but resist the temptation to feed or touch them and simply enjoy the up-close attention. On top of all this, feeding or petting wild dolphins is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  23. What is strand feeding?
  24. Strand feeding is a specialized feeding behavior by resident bottlenose dolphins that is found in some salt marshes of South Carolina and Georgia. A group of dolphins rushes a creek bank, using their bow wave to push fish onto the shore, temporarily stranding themselves to capture fish. They then wiggle back into the water after a few moments. This occurs on muddy marsh creek banks within a few hours of low tide. In some areas, this is a common daily occurrence, with numerous events per day.
  25. Who makes up the stranding network team? What is the main agency involved?
  26. The stranding network is made up of primary responders from the NOAA Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research, in Charleston, and the marine programs of Coastal Carolina University, in Conway, as well as over 40 volunteer responders and veterinarians throughout the state. The network is administered by Coastal Carolina University under the authority of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Stranding Agreement Letter, under authorization of Sections 112(c) and 403 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act).
  27. How are the stranding networks funded?
  28. The stranding network is funded by grants and donations. The primary funding is the NOAA John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program.
  29. What should I do if I encounter a stranded animal?
  30. Please see our How Can I Help? page.
  31. Where can I find more information on stranding networks?
  32. Check out the NOAA/NMFS Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.
  33. How can I become involved with a stranding network?
  34. There are a limited number of spaces for network volunteers, but send us a note if you are interested. Spaces may come up, and at least we can make sure you get additional information such as the SCMMSN Newsletter. Please direct any inquires to the state coordinator, Rob Young, at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
  35. How can I pursue this as a potential career?
  36. Stranding networks and rescue/rehab programs and facilities run on volunteer power. There are a number of pure stranding technician positions out there, but they are not abundant. Most of the paid positions that deal with strandings have additional duties. For example, a stranding network or rehab center may run out of an aquarium, university, or government lab. The people who work on strandings likely have additional duties such as research, education, animal care, or administration. Therefore, if you want to pursue this a potential career, your should gain any experience you can with strandings (internships, volunteering, summer jobs), but you should be building a broader skill set than just strandings, rescue, and rehab. The careers page of the Society for Marine Mammalogy also has some good advice.
  37. Can someone come talk to my students about marine mammals?
  38. This depends on location and current levels of funding and personnel, but we would like to accommodate requests whenever possible. Please send inquires to the state coordinator, Rob Young, at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

©2012 South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network