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Bottlenose dolphin "Ginger" just after release in Sarasota Bay on Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. (Marc Ellis/h2opictures)
UPDATES: Click here for updates on Ginger as the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program reports on the dolphin's status. Updates are received via a small VHF radio transmitter that allows researchers to use a radio signal to easily locate her and then visually monitor her as she re-acclimates to her normal habitat.

Ginger Heading Home
After less than two months of treatment, “Ginger,” the bottlenose dolphin that stranded on Siesta Key in December, was released back to her home waters in Sarasota Bay on Feb. 9, 2009. Ginger (a Tursiops truncatus) has been treated at Mote Marine Lab’s Dolphin and Whale Hospital for pneumonia and gastro-intestinal problems since her stranding on Dec. 16, 2008.

Researchers know a lot about Ginger’s life history because Sarasota Bay is home to the world’s longest-running study of a wild dolphin population. The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (managed by Dr. Randy Wells), a partnership between the Chicago Zoological Society and Mote, has been studying the lives of Sarasota’s 160-resident dolphins since 1970.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), approved the plan for Ginger’s release. NOAA is the federal agency that regulates the protection of wild dolphins, whales and porpoises, and the plans for rehabilitation and release of these animals.

Round-the-Clock Care
Since Ginger’s stranding on Dec. 16, she has been cared for by a veterinary team and volunteers who monitored her recovery around the clock. (“Ginger” is short for gingerbread, chosen because she stranded so close to the holidays.) While staff closely monitored and treated Ginger’s medical condition, volunteers played an integral role in everything from keeping a close eye on her while she recovered to providing live fish — Ginger’s preferred food — for her to eat during her rehabilitation.

By the time Ginger was released, specially trained Mote volunteers spent 1,320 hours monitoring her condition, providing vital information to the medical team about her progress. Ginger ate nearly 4,000 pinfish — that’s 35 pinfish fed five times a day at about $1 per fish. (Most of the fish came from Hart’s Landing in Sarasota.) According to Mote research, pinfish are one of the main prey species for Sarasota’s dolphins.

Ginger’s Family Tree
Since her birth, researchers have observed Ginger in the wild 129 times. They know a lot about Ginger’s life history because Sarasota Bay is home to the world’s longest-running study of a wild dolphin population. The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, a partnership between Mote and the Chicago Zoological Society and directed by Dr. Randy Wells, has been studying the lives of Sarasota’s 160-resident dolphins since 1970.

Ginger was born in 2005 and was her mother's (known as F127) first calf. Now 3.5 years old, Ginger separated from her mother at the end of May 2008, just before her mother gave birth to another calf. Studies conducted in Sarasota Bay have shown that dolphins typically stick with their moms for three to six years. Ginger’s 50-year-old grandmother is also a long-term resident of Sarasota Bay and has been observed by researchers since 1975.

After Care Satellite Tracking
One key aspect of the research and rehabilitation efforts at Mote is the ability to see how well the "patients" do after release. For offshore animals, that usually means attaching a satellite-linked tag and tracking a dolphin remotely. While this provides a wealth of very important information, it usually doesn’t allow staff to see the animal with their own eyes.

In Ginger’s case, though, since she’s an animal that is already monitored by the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, they won’t need satellites. Instead, Ginger will be outfitted with a small VHF radio transmitter before she is released. This will allow researchers to use a radio signal to easily locate her and then visually monitor her as she re-acclimates to her normal habitat.

Follow Along Monitoring
Once Ginger swims off on her own, the tracking team will use the transmitter to follow her movements and make sure she is behaving appropriately. Once they determine that she is doing OK, the team will return to Mote. A team will monitor Ginger daily for the two weeks following her release and at intervals during the one-to-three month battery life of her radio tag. You can follow along by viewing these updates, which will be posted regularly to (www.mote.org/environmentalupdates).