April 10, 2007 -- For the first time, scientists in Florida have rigged a "chat line" to the unborn calf of a deaf dolphin so the baby can learn how to speak in utero.
When marine biologists rescued Castaway in November, they knew the clock was ticking. As a pregnant dolphin she needed to return to the sea to give birth with her social group, or pod. But four attempts to release her failed. Eventually experts diagnosed her tragic problem.
"She didn't respond to any auditory stimuli and that's when we started to suspect she was deaf ," said Jana G. Fly, a veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo, Fla.
For a dolphin hearing is more important than any other sense. They need it to utilize their sonar, which is how they find food, avoid their predators and communicate.
Biologists believe that in the wild Castaway was likely cared for by her dolphin pod, but in the open ocean alone she and her baby have no chance of survival.
"Her baby will have to stay in the captive facility as well and we don't know if she'll be able to speak with her," Fly said.
But Castaway's caretakers have a plan. They've installed a "dolphin chat line" at the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo.
The squeaks and clicks of dolphins at a nearby facility are transmitted live, via a phone line, for Castaway's baby to hear in the womb. For a dolphin these vocalizations are like a mother's voice to a human infant.
Her caretakers won't know if this pioneering system will help until the baby is born in a few weeks, but until then Castaway's family has already gotten a bit bigger.
"She has no other dolphins," Fly said. "We humans have become her pod."