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Dolphins Spotted in Venice’s Grand Canal—for Real This Time

The coast guard and a rescue organization took about two hours to guide the cetaceans out of the canal

The dolphins swam in the Grand Canal near St. Mark's Square, Venice's main public square (Photograph by Naval S via Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0)
smithsonianmag.com

On a sunny day in late March, two dolphins took a trip to Venice, Julia Buckley reports for CNN.

Unlike false claims about dolphins in Venice that came out about a year ago when the city went into pandemic lockdown, it really happened this time. In the early morning, local businessowner Marco Busetto called the authorities after spotting the two dolphins in the Giudecca Canal. The coast guard then brought in the University of Padua’s Cetacean strandings Emergency Response Team, or CERT, to assist with rescuing the dolphins from the busy waterway.

It was a "beautiful and rare moment... at a sad time,” says Luca Folin, who uploaded a video of the event to Facebook, to CNN. "I uploaded it to social media without thinking it'd go around the world. To be honest, I posted it to give a nice greeting to my fellow citizens in such a sad year — but having the video go viral is nice because it means I've made others smile."

The coast guard and CERT, using police boats, maintained a safe distance from the dolphins, which became disoriented in the canal. After reviewing videos of the event, experts at CERT were able to identify them as striped dolphins, says University of Padua veterinary pathologist Sandro Mazzariol to Justine Calma at the Verge. Striped dolphins hadn’t visited Venice in about four years, per CNN; bottlenose dolphins are more common.

Striped dolphins are normally found in deep water, where they live in pods of up to 100 animals. The pair in Venice looked like an adult and a juvenile. University of Padua conservation veterinarian Guido Pietroluongo tells CNN the pair may have wandered into unfamiliar waters while searching for food. Spectators recorded videos of the animals hunting for cuttlefish near St. Mark’s Square.

“This is very unusual,” says Luca Mizzan, the head of the Natural History Museum in Venice, to Tom Kington at the Times. “They were clearly encouraged to venture this far into the city by the calm waters in Venice right now.”

Before pandemic-related restrictions dramatically slowed boat traffic in Venice, the water in the canals was muddy and opaque because boat traffic lifted the sediment from the bottom. But by March 2020, the waters were blue and clear, Joh Brunton reported for the Guardian at the time. That’s also when the first, false claims of dolphins appeared online; the dolphins in the 2020 video were actually at a port in Sardinia, hundreds of miles from Venice, Natasha Daly reported for National Geographic.

By this March, boat traffic in Venice had picked up enough to cause problems for the actual visiting dolphins.

"The traffic was intense, and we realized the dolphins were completely disorientated, swimming around in all directions, mostly because they were scared," says Pietroluongo to CNN. "Dolphins mostly orientate themselves by sound, but here, both sides of the canal had walls and there were boats all around. The authorities said they had been stuck there for two hours, swimming round and round."

To herd the dolphins back toward open seas, the coast guard and CERT assembled their boats into a chain formation to encourage the dolphins to swim away from them and toward the mouth of the canal. The team also used acoustic devices, Mazzariol tells the Verge. After two and a half hours—slowed down by ferries cutting through the chain and giving the dolphins an opening to circle back—the animals turned toward the Lido, where the Venetian lagoon joins the Adriatic Sea. The rescue team watched them swim away.

"We sighted them three times and then lost them completely. They hadn't gone back towards the Grand Canal, so hopefully they took the right direction,” says Pietroluongo to CNN. "Hopefully they're free in their environment, now.”

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