Seeing marine animals in their natural habitat can be exciting. Unfortunately, not all marine life you may encounter will be healthy. You may come across animals in distress—entangled in marine debris or fishing gear, sick, or injured—or dead.
Understandably, when most people see a dolphin or a sea turtle that appears to be in trouble, the first impulse is to try to rescue it. But that is likely not be the best option for the animal or the person trying to help. These wild animals may be sick, injured, disoriented, or starving. They could have been exposed to pollution or a natural toxin, entangled in fishing gear, struck by a vessel, or infected by a disease or parasite. Their reactions may be unpredictable, and it can be dangerous to try to touch or move them. Only trained and authorized responders should assist marine animals in distress.
Reporting a sick, injured, entangled, or dead animal is the best way to ensure that professional authorized responders and scientists know about the incident and can take appropriate action. Always keep a safe distance—it’s good advice, and the law.
Learn more about what you can do and how to report
NOAA has authorized more than 100 organizations around the country to respond to marine mammals in distress, each with different rescue, rehabilitation, response, and investigation specialties. Network members include professionals and volunteers from nonprofit organizations, aquaria, universities, museums, and state and local governments who are trained in stranding or entanglement response, animal evaluation, and administration of animal care.
Bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, and manatees are the marine life most commonly involved in unusual mortality events. Causes have been determined for 32 of the 64 events documented since 1991 including infections, biotoxins, human interactions such as vessel strikes, and malnutrition.
The Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network responds to and collects information on marine turtle strandings along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts. The network, which includes federal, state and private partners, encompasses coastal areas from Maine to Texas, and includes portions of the U.S. Caribbean. Other turtle response organizations respond to marine turtle strandings along the West Coast and Pacific Islands/Hawaii.
Stranded marine mammals sometimes come onto shore, dead or alive. NOAA works with trained partners in every coastal state to respond to and assess the condition of reported animals, and in certain cases attempt to rehabilitate or relocate them. If an animal is dead, responders may perform a necropsy (animal autopsy) to learn more about the animal and what may have caused the stranding. When elevated marine mammal stranding rates occur over a longer time period the Marine Mammal Protection Act sets out a process to evaluate these stranding and mortality events and determine whether they should be designated as unusual mortality events, which trigger a specific investigative response.
Learn more about the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program
A stranded sea turtle is one that is found on land or in the water dead, injured, sick, or exhibiting usual behavior. One of the most well-known examples of mass strandings is when cold-stunned sea turtles strand during winter months on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. During these events, thousands of turtles may require care. The Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network responds to and collects data on strandings of marine turtles along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts, while NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Turtle Biology and Assessment Program rehabilitates and studies stranded sea turtles throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Other state and local organizations respond to sea turtle strandings on the U.S. West Coast.
Learn more about the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network
Marine animals occasionally swim into fishing gear or marine debris and get entangled, stuck, injured, or even killed. Entanglements may prevent the recovery of endangered and threatened marine mammal and sea turtle populations. Prompt reporting is the best way to assist an entangled animal. For the safety of the animals and people involved, only trained and authorized responders should attempt to disentangle a whale, dolphin, porpoise, seal, sea lion, or sea turtle. Many animals can be successfully disentangled and released. The information gained from the response goes back into research and management to ultimately prevent future entanglements.
Learn more about entanglements of marine animals
Collisions with ships and boats are one of the primary human-caused threats to marine mammals, particularly large whales. In fact, vessel strikes are the leading human-caused source of mortality for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. The West and East coasts of the United States have some of the heaviest vessel traffic associated with some of the largest ports in the country. Encouraging responsible boating practices and understanding where and when whales may be present are key components to reducing the risk of vessel strikes in these areas. Boat strikes by recreational vessels are also a concern for several sea turtle species, particularly in the southeast. To prevent vessel strikes, NOAA Fisheries recommends that recreational vessels maintain a distance of at least 50 yards from all marine animals, including sea turtles.
Learn more about vessel strikes
Stranded marine animals are an important source of information for scientists. Studying the reasons that animals come ashore provides clues about ocean conditions and the health of coastal ecosystems. Animals can be sampled to quantify contaminant levels in tissues and alert researchers to emerging diseases. Marine mammal tissue and blood samples collected in the field may be stored for analysis at the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank. Knowing what may have caused an animal to strand helps us enhance conservation efforts for threatened and endangered species.
Learn more about biosurveillance and data collection
Learn about strandings of marine mammals and sea turtles and how NOAA Fisheries and partners respond to these animals in distress.