a Dolphin and a Shark

Unfortunately as the title alludes to this is an uncomfortable post for many people.  If you are not a local to Clearwater Florida then you did not hear of what happened to an Atlantic bottle-nose dolphin named Dunham this past Tuesday.

In December of 2008 a sick juvenile male dolphin was discovered stranded on Anclote Key.  He was acting listless, the skin dotted with shark bites, and a  long cut to the tail further sapped him of energy.

He was roughly 6 years old and was transported to the Panhandle research lab.  The staff at the Gulf World Marine Park named him Dunham and discovered he was also suffering from pneumonia.

For almost eight months, the staff worked to nursed him back to health with the help of donations and other private funding. Come June he was hunting down live fish with great speed in his 50-foot pool.

On Tuesday he was ready to leave the helping hands and reenter nature.  He was outfitted with a radio transmitter.  The transmitter was designed to further research into dolphin life.  And all was good, for three hours.

He might have been hungry and that is why he headed towards a spoil island in the Intercoastal Waterway.  That shallow water is known for great fishing.  This is July and the shallows are also known for something else.  Shortly Dunham broke the surface of the water revealing the unexpected.  Between the pectoral fin and tail was missing flesh.

He had been bitten.  He surfaced a second time with a larger bite in his belly.  Reports are varied to the length of the shark (8 to 9 foot).  But all agree that it was a tiger shark. This region is commonly known for an increase in the shark population.

The people then euthanize Dunham.

After the event a shark expert for Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute took a moment to examine photos of the wounds.   Brent Winner of the research institute surmised that the dolphin was most likely attacked by several sharks of different species.  And the fatal bite was consistent with a medium-sized tiger shark.

I personally have mixed feeling about this event.  What is natural?  What is our roll as humans?  When do we interfere with the natural cycle of life?  How do we value life?  I have read many peoples opinions on other blogs and my head hurts.

I guess what I want to know is, is the life of a hungry dolphin equal to a hungry shark?  Both are equal in nature.  Why do we elevate one and demonize the other?

If we want to be good environmentalists all of God’s creatures should be equally respected, loved, and protected.



  1. Very well stated! I was at the release, as you may have been, and left feeling like we were returning Dunham back to live out his life (however long or short) in freedom where he belonged.
    I never guessed it would be so tragically short! So many people worked tirelessly (a worker from Harbor Branch asked me to hand him some coffee…he had been up over twenty four hours) along with staff from the different aquariums and rescue centers that nursed him back to health.

    While I believe everyone acted with only Dunham’s best interests at heart..upon hearing this heartbreaking news…my mind drifted back to sitting on the shore watching him swim for nearly two hours as his white dorsal fin continually emerged from the water.

    People say it was nature taking it’s course…but was it really?
    Can we put a rehabilitated Dolphin (after a long ride from the panhandle) into the gulf, drop him into an unusual environment, and expect him to have an equal chance with the sharks and the other dangers that call the area home? My purpose is not to criticize any decisions made by professionals (I agree there are times we need to release rehabilitated animals)but ask some questions on behalf of Dunham and the dolphins we assist in the future.

    Why was Dunham’s situation different from other successful releases in the same area? What caused the first shark to attack? (we can believe once the blood was in the water this is what drew other sharks) While I am no scientist…we should look at the variables and take some key factors into consideration.

    1. He traveled a long time before releasing…approximately 8 hours.

    2. It was reported his dorsal fin bled when the transmitter was attached…maybe he hit this and it began to bleed again? If we look at the obvious blood would of attracted the sharks. Where could blood possibly come from? Or did they smell something else on Dunham?

    3. The zinc oxide used on his dorsal fin and melon for sunburn (I don’t know the brand) usually contains silica acid which may create a bio luminescence effect in continued exposure to salt water. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jp971177r
    In the low visibility of the water in this area, Could a shark of seen these flecks of light and attacked thinking it was a distressed fish?

    4. Do we always coat dolphins with zinc oxide when releasing? Was a different brand used and could the clear type be a better choice and more natural looking for the dolphin?

    5. Many sharks, including the whitetip reef shark are cooperative feeders and hunt in packs in order to herd and capture elusive prey. Maybe Dunham was vulnerable just by being alone?

    6. Was there a hereditary issue we don’t yet understand since we believed he had been bitten by sharks in the past?

    These are a few of many possibilities that I hope can be ruled out one by one.

    I welcome any comments and/or insights and hope we gain some information into why this tragic ending occurred so quickly after returning Dunham to where he ultimately belonged.

  2. Very sad story that I hadn’t been aware of.

    A few years ago a similar occurrence happened in California. A group of people rehabilitated two injured sea lions. When they determined that they were ready for release they chose the Farallon Islands just a few miles off of San Francisco. Large colonies of Sea Lions gather and live there so they figured it was a great spot. Upon releasing them into the waters just several meters from the shore line, they were both attacked by Great Whites.

    It was a horrific thing to witness especially after having put so much time and emotion into the seals. It was like losing a pair of family members I’m sure.

    RIP Dunham.

    (great post! sweet site, look forward to checking it out)

  3. Thanks for responding. Since writing this I have learned that the Zinc was used so the researchers could watch him and know it was him when he surfaced while they followed him. It may have been a poor choice because the sharks may have spotted him because of it too, but who knows. Maybe the necropsy will reveal some helpful information.

    BTW I love to Kayak and am looking for one that is light and would be able to be carried around in my Jeep Liberty by a 5’8″ woman with strong arms? Any ideas of what brand would be best and the best way to get it around?

  4. Some of the most memorable lightweight kayaks that I have played with have been skin on frame boats and wood kayaks. Turner Wilson of http://www.kayakways.net is a trusted friend his email is turner@kayakways.net he can make it for recreation, or for touring purposes. I also like Chesapeake Light Craft and redfish kayak Russell at Sweetwater Kayaks has had C.L.C. demo days on Gandy Bridge. My friend Kayak Kev can also help you with some wood kayak questions.

    The good thing about these kayaks is that they can cost less than the average fiberglass kayak and they can weigh less than 30 pounds. However, it takes time to find the right one.

    On the other hand, you can check out http://www.eddyline.com or http://www.cdkayak.com both have some recreational and touring kayaks that range from 33 lbs to 46 lbs. Granted some of them cost more than the skin on frame and wood kayaks.

    To get it on the Jeep Liberty look at http://www.thuleracks.com Hullavator and http://www.yakima.com HullyRollers. Thule has had some problems with saltwater rusting the Hullavator in the past. And sometimes the HullyRollers slip and gum up with sand.

  5. Thanks for all the great info I will begin my research. I wanted to ask if it mattered that I am mostly using it in the inner coastal waters off Pinellas county in Florida?

  6. It does not matter that you are paddling in the inner coastal. What matters is the condition of the water during your paddle. If you like to paddle on windy days then you will want the hull of the boat to have more rocker. This helps the boat to ride up and over the swells. If you paddle when the water is flat then you want the hull of the boat from front to back to be flat. Thus increasing its glide along the water.

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