Oceanarium recalls rescue of wayward dolphins, sea lions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

Published: Aug. 26, 2015 at 10:47 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 28, 2015 at 9:24 PM CDT
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The catastrophic damage to the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, Gulfport, MS
The catastrophic damage to the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, Gulfport, MS

GULFPORT, MS (WVUE) - As thousands fled for safety, one family on the Gulf Coast had nowhere to go. They hunkered down in a tank of water as the biggest wave of their lives approached.

A family of dolphins weathered Hurricane Katrina in their Gulfport beach-front tank.

"We had evacuated many of the animals, but there was this huge tank. It's about 30-feet tall that survived hurricane Camille, so we left eight dolphins, mothers and calves. We just couldn't move them because they would've died just moving them," Moby Solangi, the president of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, said.

The surge, nearly 40 feet, topped the tank at the Oceanarium, washing away all eight dolphins. Thirteen days later, Solangi and his team at the former Oceanarium were determined to find the pod.

"We got in the helicopter and went looking for them. We had a boat with the food on it and all of them popped up. All eight of them stayed together," Solangi said.

"All of them were dehydrated and all of them were thin. They hadn't been eating nor doing any of those things. That's why it was really important that the people from Marine Life found them and got them back up to health," Kelly Pulis, the lead dolphin trainer at the institute, said.

After days of training, feeding the dolphins in the Gulf on rubber mats and eventually transferring them into a hotel pool, the pod found a temporary home at a nearby naval base. Experts think it was the connection between trainers and the dolphins that made their rescue possible.

"That's the only reason they got the dolphins back -- because they had relationships with people and their trainers and we can ask them certain behaviors to get them on the boat and get them back in. They all banded together because they knew each other. They knew there was somewhere better for them to be than where they were," Pulis said.

The team also rescued wayward sea lions found in the swamps, another member of the Oceanarium family displaced by the storm. But the home those animals knew wouldn't return until 2008 when the current Institute for Marine Mammal Studies re-established its home on the Gulf Coast.

"It was extremely important to provide this opportunity for education, conservation and research. We have a very large dolphin population here in they epitomize the marine environment. People love them and we thought that we had to bring these educational and research opportunities back," Solangi said.

The institute is a vital link between the community and the natural habitat of the coast, where some animals, like the Kemps Ridley sea turtle, are still fighting for their lives.

"They're the ones that get caught in the shrimp nets and so their population has been declining quite a bit so they've been declared the most endangered of all the turtles in the world," Solangi added.

The institute gives those injured turtles a real chance for survival and provides a home for sea mammals in need.

"We found that leaving a place that needed us would not be the right thing to do and so the best option was let's go and get it back," he said.

Now it's back bigger and better, so the lives on the coast that need the most help will always have a home.

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