The emaciated bottlenose dolphin had pneumonia in December when humans found him stranded on Anclote Key. His skin was dotted with minor shark bites. One long, clean cut to his tail suggested damage from a fishing line.
He was roughly 6 years old and they called him Dunham. For seven months, they nursed him at a Panhandle rehab center. By June, he was swimming strongly and hunting down live fish they threw in his 50-foot pool.
About 100 dolphins and whales get stranded each year in the southeastern United States. Most die quickly or end up in aquariums. Only a handful get a second crack at freedom, and it's always a risk.
Dunham's chance came Tuesday morning, when proud and excited handlers released him off the Dunedin Causeway, carrying a radio collar so they could follow him in boats and monitor his progress.
He seemed a little stiff after a long van ride the night before, but he quickly picked up the pace and headed south. Dunham's handlers beamed as the dolphin returned to nature.
A few hours later, nature would break their hearts.
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Dunham the dolphin's return to the wild was set in motion weeks ago at Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, part of the federal government's marine mammal stranding network.
He had been sent there from Clearwater Marine Aquarium after his stranding. Gulf World officials could not be reached for comment, but Diane Young, the Clearwater aquarium's director of animal care, described his rehabilitation.
He was given antibiotics, anti-fungals, antacids and vitamin supplements until Gulf World staff weaned him off about three weeks ago, Young said.
Human contact was kept to a minimum. Herring, sardines and other fish were tossed into his mouth when he was sick. After his health improved, live fish were tossed in the pool so he could hunt them.
Young said she didn't know how much Dunham's nursing cost, but "it's very expensive to rehabilitate animals," she said.
"He almost died a couple of times, but he was such a fighter, he stuck it out,'' said Blair Mase, stranding coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "I was up there visiting him last week. He looked really good. He had good body weight. He was feisty. He looked ready to go.''
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On Monday night, he was sent by van back to Clearwater. Early Tuesday morning, about a dozen people eased him from a stretcher and into the water near the eastern terminus of Dunedin Causeway.
His dorsal fin was slathered with zinc oxide and a radio transmitter attached so his handlers could keep track of him after he was released about 8 a.m.
Mase, who is based in Miami, received updates by phone.
"He was going real slow at first. That's to be expected with the long transport. He was in the van for hours overnight. It's expected that he would be a little stiff.''
Then he picked up the pace and "started acting like a wild dolphin,'' Mase said. He sidled up to a pod of other dolphin for a few minutes but did not join them.
About three hours into the release, Dunham headed into shallow water near a spoil island in the Intracoastal Waterway. Fish were jumping there, said Young, one of about eight people following in two boats. His followers thought he was going to feed, Young said.
It was a good sign.
Then they saw him tussle with something. When he surfaced, his skin showed signs of shark bites and he was bleeding. One shallow bite between his pectoral fin and tail was the size of a hand, Young said.
People on the boats discussed what to do for about 10 minutes. If they jumped into the water to help, sharks might attack them as well.
Then Dunham surfaced again, this time with a large bite that penetrated his blubber down to his diaphragm. An 8- to 9-foot tiger shark swam nearby.
"By the time we witnessed the first one and got a really good visual to assess the wounds, the second attack was already happening,'' Young said. "It just happened so fast.''
A veterinarian who had worked with Dunham for months was summoned from the mainland. Gulf World's boat made it to the shallows in 20 to 30 minutes. Nothing could be done to save the wounded dolphin. Dr. Lydia Staggs injected a mild sedative and, a minute later, a lethal dose of Beuthanasia.
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Brent Winner, a shark expert for Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, examined photos of the wounds and said Dunham was most likely attacked by several sharks of different species, but that the largest wound was consistent with a medium-sized tiger shark.
Tampa Bay and nearby inland waters are full of sharks, Winner said.
"When something like this happens, there are all sorts of signals in the water, like blood or vibrations or sound. Any predator in the area is going to come and check that out. Unfortunately, that's what led to this incident.''
Every release into the wild involves risk, Mase said. In a California case a few years back, an injured seal had become a public cause, with many people donating money for his rehabilitation. On the day of release, donors, volunteers and onlookers gathered in boats near Catalina Island to watch him go.
What they saw was a killer whale throw him into the air and eat him right after he hit the water.
"Sometimes we can't stop nature in its course,'' Mase said. "That's what happened today and it's very sad. All the time and effort that was made into making this animal better and release it into the wild.