Trevor Long, of Sea World, and the rescue crew lift the mother dolphin from Prospect Lake.
Trevor Long, of Sea World, and the rescue crew lift the mother dolphin from Prospect Lake. The Northern Star

Trapped dolphins are freed

CHEERS erupted yesterday when a mother bottlenose dolphin and her calf, trapped for two weeks in Ballina's Prospect Lake, were set free into the Richmond River.

Katie Small, 4, of East Ballina, lives by the lake and did daily checks on the dolphins with her mother, Allyson.

She waited and watched with the crowd, and when the dolphins were released she pointed to the rescue workers in their orange wetsuits.

“I want to be one of those when I grow up,” she said in praise of what she had seen.

The rescue operation started at 8.30am and involved Sea World staff, NSW National Parks and Wildlife officers from Alstonville, SCU whale researchers, 12 Australian Seabird Rescue volunteers, Ballina police and the RSPCA.

An extra strong net from Port Macquarie was unloaded as the 40-strong rescue team was briefed.

Sea World director of marine sciences, Trevor Long, said it was not unusual for dolphins to enter Prospect Lake at East Ballina, but usually they left the lake at high tide.

This time the mother and her calf had not been able to find their way out and concern had grown for their wellbeing.

There were not enough fish to sustain a lactating mother dolphin needing to eat twice what she normally would.

A rescue plan was devised by NSW National Parks and Wildlife officers Mark Pittavino and Brian McLachlan.

“You can't predict what an animal will do, but safety was our main concern,” Mr McLachlan said.

At 10.30am five rescue boats were launched and the net was stretched across Prospect Lake.

Television crews from Sydney and Brisbane waited with local media to catch the first glimpse of the dolphins.

A long hour later as the net closed in, the calf became tangled in the net and the mother dolphin escaped in the struggle.

The calf was placed in a sling and kept moist.

Australian Seabird Rescue president Rochelle Ferris was one of the people who held the baby dolphin in the sling which was kept in thigh-high water to lure the mother closer.

“I wanted to bawl my eyes out when the baby was in the sling, but we can't get stressed because dolphins can sense your heartbeat,” Ms Ferris said.

SCU whale researcher Christine Fury helped to hold the sling poles, and she made sure the calf's nose was low in the water so the two dolphins could communicate with each other.

Her colleague, SCU whale researcher Dr Liz Hawkins, could hear the calf's distress calls loud and clear through an underwater hydrophone.

Meanwhile, Mr Long asked the large crowd that had gathered to be quiet as the mother dolphin came in close to her baby.

When the mother dolphin became tangled in the net Sea World divers made a grab and placed her in a sling.

Both dolphins were lifted into a truck with padded mats as the waiting media clicked their cameras at the first close-up pictures of the dolphins.

At 12.30pm Ballina police escorted the dolphin convoy over Missingham Bridge to the Richmond River Sailing Club ramp.

On the way Lennox Head vet Evan Kosack monitored the health of the dolphins.

“We covered them with wet towels and had to protect their eyes from the wind blowing through the truck,” Mr Kosack said.

The baby dolphin urinated and defecated and this was a sign of distress, Mr Kosack said.

All hands were needed to lift the slings into the Richmond River, and as they were lowered into the water the dolphins immediately swam away.

Jubilant cheers from the crowd and rescue workers marked the end of a successful rescue operation.

The services and resources of Sea World were offered free, and the cost of such an operation was difficult to assess.

“We can't say how much an operation like this costs, but it runs into tens of thousands of dollars and we won't have to do it again,” Mr Long said

Ballina Shire Council is ready to talk to relevant groups about barrier measures to prevent further dolphins being trapped in the man-made lake that is the responsibility of the council.

Ballina Shire group manager of civil services, John Truman, said there would be discussions with National Parks to find a solution.

One idea, suggested by parks officer Mr McLachlan, was to hang stainless steel rods beneath the bridge to deter the dolphins, but still allow smaller fish and kayakers through the channel.

For the two dolphins released yesterday their happy ending means an open ocean and no more television cameras.

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