A Dolphin Tragedy
10 dolphins die in a cavern system on the south shore of Roatan

September 1st, 2007
by Thomas Tomczyk

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An exit from the Dolphin's Den cave system. (photo by Tim Blanton)

An exit from the Dolphin's Den cave system. (photo by Tim Blanton)

There are three theories about what could have happened to a pod of ten common dolphins that died in a cave system off Pollitilly Bight on August 1. One of the young dolphins could have swum into the cave and become lost. As the other dolphins followed it into the cave, navigating and even turning in the narrow caverns could have become impossible. As the dolphins’ ultrasound system bounced off the rock and coral, the animals could have grown more and more disoriented and panicked. They could have repeatedly slammed into the coral and run out of air.

Three of the individuals were found “jammed in” at a narrow window of the cavern, trying to pass it at the same time. The wide exits from the cavern were in plain site just a few meters away. “We are perplexed why they could not surface at these openings and breathe,” said Gillian Notton, owner of Subway Water Sports dive shop who discovered the tragedy on an afternoon dive.

It is also plausible that the pod was chased into the cave system by a shark and lost their way. One of the dolphins was found with significant signs of predation, possibly that of a shark.

Alvin Jackson, a Roatan diver of over 20 years and owner of Native Sons dive shop, believes that the silversides are the reason for dolphins dying in the caves. “The dolphins just go into a feeding frenzy chasing the fish,” says Jackson. In the caves literally filled with fish, dolphins can hardly tell where the silverside colony ends and coral begins. The only way to potentially confirm this would be to examine stomach content of the dead dolphins for presence of recently eaten silversides.

Whatever the initial reason for dolphins ending up in the caves, the incident was a tragedy on a scale unheard-of on the Bay Islands. “It had to have been just hell in there,” said Notton, explaining that all the dolphins had major scratches from coral, some with broken beaks and broken fins.

Three of the dead dolphins with visible scratch marks (photo by Tim Blanton)

Three of the dead dolphins with visible scratch marks (photo by Tim Blanton)

This is not the first time that dolphins were found dead at the Dolphin’s Den dive site, a system of caverns 11 meters deep and 50 meters long, just north of Pollitilly Bight. Ben Gonzales, a Roatan dive shop owner, reportedly found three dead dolphins in the caves around 1997. It was about that time that the dive site’s name was changed from Verde Grande (Big Green) to Dolphin’s Den. In the early 1990s, Jackson discovered close to a dozen skeletons and dolphin carcasses with flesh still on them at the same site. Despite all of this, few people believed in the story about dead dolphins until now.

While cases of dolphins drowning while becoming disoriented in underwater caves have been documented, the number of dead dolphins makes this particular event extremely rare. Tim Blanton, a videographer from Cocoview documented the site on August 2 and found an octopus, several eels and lobsters scavenging on the dolphin corpses. Nine dolphin corpses were left at the site “out of respect for the animals,” says Notton. [/private]

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