MYSTIC, Conn. — On a back lot of the Mystic Aquarium, a lone dolphin races around an isolated tank. Far from the groups of schoolchildren marveling over exotic fish or beluga whales trained to perform tricks, the dolphin appears to get little attention.
But she is the focus of researchers and veterinarians who rescued her when she washed ashore at Block Island in June and who hope to release her back into the ocean.
Rescue and rehabilitation, and the research that goes with it, are prime tenets of the aquarium's mission. One of the state's biggest tourist attractions, the aquarium has also earned a reputation as a prime rehabilitation center for dolphins and whales.
"There's more to it than just grabbing fish and sticking them in a tank," said David St. Aubin, director of research and veterinary services at the aquarium. "Research supports the exhibits, and the exhibits give us an opportunity to perform research."
The 137,000-square-foot aquarium has more than 40 exhibits and 3,500 different specimens. But the 1 million people, on average, who visit the aquarium each year never see what makes it unique in the Northeast: two 100,000-gallon tanks, 11 feet deep, 40 feet wide.
The tanks, built in 1997 for about $1 million off the path to the penguin exhibit, allow the aquarium to take dolphins and whales in need of extensive medical treatment. The closest similar facility is the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
"In New England, they are the rehabilitation center for cetaceans," said Dana Hartley, Northeast Region Stranding Network coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "They have the room. They have the expertise."
Mystic, one of 11 such agencies covering the coast from Maine to Virginia, is responsible for helping animals stranded along the Connecticut and Rhode Island coasts. Through calls from the Coast Guard or from boaters, the aquarium rescues dozens of seals and sea turtles stranded each year during migration.
They are able to release about 75% of the smaller animals after about a month of care, which often includes treatment for malnutrition, dehydration or infections.
Dolphins and whales are more sporadically rescued and take up to four times as long to rehabilitate. The aquarium has received about seven live animals in the last year, St. Aubin said.
Best known may be a pair of pilot whales released by the aquarium off the Long Island coast last October after several months of care. Treated for infections and dehydration after they were found beached on Cape Cod, they were fitted with transmitters and tracked for four months. The public was able to follow their progress at the aquarium and on the Internet.
Mystic's current rehab resident, a common dolphin, was found in June. Kept in the isolated tank, the dolphin gets few glimpses of her caretakers--even at feeding time.
Minimizing human contact is vital if the dolphin is to be rehabilitated; animals are not even given names, St. Aubin said. The amount of human contact is one of the factors considered by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency that has the final say on whether the animals can be released.
Once an animal gets over its initial health crisis, discussions about releasing it begin. No decision has been made on the common dolphin, which is in good health but is young--at 2 to 4 years old--to be on her own, St. Aubin said.
If the dolphin is successfully released, "that would be a big deal," Hartley said.
"They're offshore animals, used to being in large herds, and they don't do well in captivity," she said.
There has also been an alarming number of common dolphin strandings in the region over the last eight months, St. Aubin said. Since early summer, aquarium rescuers have been forced to euthanize two other common dolphins that had fatal brain infections, he said.
Even if an animal dies or cannot be freed from captivity, there are lessons to be learned, St. Aubin said. Stormy, a bottlenose dolphin found on a Texas beach in the summer of 1998, had lost his mother in a storm and been attacked by a shark. After two months of treatment and much contact with humans, young Stormy was deemed to have missed too much essential rearing from his mother to be released.
Because Mystic had the space, the aquarium offered Stormy a home.
"He tells a story to our visitors about what goes on out there," St. Aubin said. "Life at sea is not all rosy."
The aquarium, with about six of its 120 full-time workers dedicated to research and veterinary care, operates on a $13-million annual budget. Relying on private donations, the nonprofit receives no federal money for taking in a stranded animal. Caring for the pilot whales during their four-month stay cost about $90,000, St. Aubin said.