A crowd gathers to watch a wayward dolphin in the Bolsa Chica wetlands in… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
Helicopters circled, crowds gathered to gawk and worry, and traffic snarled along Pacific Coast Highway as a disoriented dolphin circled in the shallow, murky waters of the Bolsa Chica wetlands Friday.
The 7-foot dolphin — nicknamed Fred by some of the spectators — apparently swam mistakenly into the wetlands with five companions earlier in the week. While the dolphin's pod mates returned to sea, the one called Fred stayed behind.
"They were probably chasing fish through the Huntington Harbour and lost their way," said Dean Gomersall, animal care supervisor with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.
Gomersall said the dolphin looked healthy and could go days without eating, but appeared "very confused."
Rescuers waded into the water in hopes of slipping the dolphin into a harness and guiding it through an inlet and back out to sea. But the dolphin proved elusive. It swam in circles, chasing fish. Occasionally it splashed. And sometimes it nosed under the water and seemed to disappear.
More than 50 spectators lined the shores to watch the drama, some of them lured by chatter on social media. They snapped photos on their smartphones, set up tripods or just sat and watched.
At one point, traffic on Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach slowed to a crawl as people craned to get a look and motorists angled their cars along the shoulder — at least until police arrived and began handing out citations.
After hours of rescue attempts, officials decided that all the commotion might be inducing anxiety in the animal, which seemed to be more lost than sick.
Kelly O'Reilly, a biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, said the dolphin appeared "spooked" and seemed to deliberately swim to the opposite side of the small bay to get away from onlookers.
By midafternoon, rescuers decided it was best to leave the dolphin alone and hope it could find its way back to sea on its own — possibly during high tide.
"Trapping an animal even under perfect circumstances causes stress," said Paul Hamdorf of Fish and Game.
If the dolphin is still there Saturday, rescuers might try again to nudge it in the direction of the open sea.
Lori Graham, who lives nearby, said she came over to the bay with her daughter and sister when she heard a helicopter overhead. "I've seen seals but never a dolphin here," she said.
Heather Swett, another local and a self-described dolphin lover, was on her daily jog near the wetlands when she saw the crowd. "I feel bad," she said, standing on a bridge over the water. "I want to help somehow."
The dolphin found its way into the bay through a passage that runs under Warner Avenue, which deepens at high tide. The wetlands sit on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway.
One of the spectators, Laurel Armor, 47, of Huntington Beach, said she has been a dolphin enthusiast since she took a marine mammals class in college. She felt bad for the dolphin. "We don't speak their language so it's probably a little harder to help them," she said.
Charlie Adams, who had been watching the drama since morning, pondered names for the dolphin and came up with Fred.
"I think Fred, or whatever his name is, has got a lot more room now that the tide is in," he said.
Daniel Gonzalez, 42, an amateur photographer, drove about 45 minutes from Huntington Park to see the mammal. He was inspired by the community's concern.
"It shows community support and community service for the environment," he said.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Michael Miller and Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.