One day, my research team and I were following a school of bottlenose dolphins near shore as we do on a regular basis in the waters off Los Angeles, California. We just wrapped up our photo-identification work and were moving on to take video of dolphin social interactions and enter data on behavior.
The dolphins were still feeding in circle near shore, when suddenly, one individual changed direction heading out toward deeper water. A minute later, the rest of the school turned to follow. We were so accustomed to tracking these coastal metropolitan dolphins back and forth within a few hundred meters of the beach, that seeing them abruptly leave a foraging ground and change direction came as a surprise to the research team. I decided to follow them.
The dolphins increased their speed, still heading offshore as I pushed the throttle ahead to keep pace while one of my researchers recorded this hasty change in behavior on the sighting form. Somewhere near three miles offshore the dolphin group stopped, forming a sort of ring around a dark object in the water.
“Someone’s in the water!” yelled my assistant, standing up and pointing at the seemingly lifeless body of a girl. For a moment, we were silent. Then, slowly, I maneuvered the boat closer. The girl was pallid and blonde and appeared to be fully clothed. As the boat neared, she feebly turned her head toward us, half-raising her hand as a weak sign for help.
I cut the engine and called the lifeguards on the VHF radio. They told us not to do anything until they arrived on site but it was our unanimous feeling that if we didn’t act immediately, the girl would die. We decided to ignore lifeguard’s instructions, instead pulling the frail and hypothermic body on board. I called the lifeguards back and informed them that she was alive and that we had her aboard and we were heading back to Marina del Rey, the closest harbor, as quickly as possible.
“She is cyanotic,” said one of my researchers, also a lifeguard, after a cursory examination. “She has severe hypothermia. We need to get her warm!” We managed to get some of her wet garments off and wrap her in a blanket. We took turns keeping her warm by huddling with her under the blanket.
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