Dolphin Strandings

The Story of Holly and Hercules

In December of 1998, seven rough-toothed dolphins stranded off Florida's coast. The veterinary staff at Mote Marine Laboratory's Dolphin and Whale Hospital flew to Panama City in a Coast Guard C-130 plane, called a Hercules. They accepted four of the seven dolphins for care at their hospital, but two died before they even left the runway. The two dolphins that traveled to Mote's Dolphin and Whale Hospital were named Holly and Hercules. When MacGillivray Freeman Films heard about the rescue, they went to Sarasota to film both the dolphins and veterinarians working with them.

Little is known about rough-toothed dolphins, though scientists say they are "schooling dolphins." In other words, they live and travel in large groups, which is more typical of deep-water mammals who must be wary of predators and who usually hunt together to find food. Though their relationship prior to stranding is unknown, Holly and Hercules were in physical contact with one another almost 90% of the time in the intensive care tank at the hospital. The only time they weren't touching, was when they were fed. When one was taken out for tests or x-rays, there was constant vocal communication between them. Another exceptional quality the care team documented was the dolphins' willingness to be approached and treated by humans, as most dolphins' instinct is to avoid people. The staff and volunteers could move in very close to the pair, without either one trying to escape the encounter.

Both Holly and Hercules had pneumonia and problems in their digestive tract, but the doctors weren't sure of the cause. So far, we know of only a handful of illnesses dolphins acquire, caused by parasites, viruses, bacteria or fungus, but there are a lot of diseases that have not even been described yet. The health of a dolphins' lungs, which are so vital to its existence, is especially critical. At times, volunteers stood for hours in 40 degree weather, supporting Holly who was too weak to swim on her own. She was also unable to eat for the first five days, so was fed through a tube.

After four weeks, Holly and Hercules seemed to be getting better. Their appetites had improved. They were swimming on their own. The pneumonia was nearly gone, but the intestinal trouble was persistent. By the first of March, more than eight weeks after the stranding, Hercules had experienced dramatic swings in his condition. On March 8, he died. Holly continued to eat and swim on her own, but her illness, as it did with Hercules, became progressively worse. On March 16, seeing that Holly was experiencing severe pain, and with no hope for her recovery, the staff euthanized her. Necropsies for both Hercules and Holly revealed lesions on their kidneys, heart and lungs, as well as intestinal blockages.


Each stranding, no matter how it ends, with a successful release or unfortunate death, contributes to our ability to diagnose and treat other dolphins. Sometimes, that knowledge means we'll know when to euthanize an animal to keep its suffering to a minimum. Happily, Mote's Dolphin and Whale Hospital has a 30% release rate (compare to 5% worldwide). The Mote staff publishes their findings for the scientific community and keeps the public well-informed during each dolphin stranding, in hopes that their growing knowledge benefits dolphins everywhere.

The following are links to stranding and rehabilitation centers MacGillivray Freeman Films has worked with on this and other films, however there are facilities for dolphins, whales and other ocean animals all along our coastlines. They all could use your help.

Mote Marine Laboratory:

Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network:

The Marine Mammal Center of California:

Marine Mammal Stranding Center of New Jersey:


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