The 6-foot-6-inch dolphin will leave Tuesday for the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport because he would be unable to survive in the wild, said Suzanne Smith, rescue coordinator at the Audubon Nature Institute.
Deafness is probably why the dolphin, nicknamed Sassafrass, was stranded in a couple of inches of water on a mudflat where researchers found him March 6, Smith said Friday. He was terribly sunburned and deaf in the frequencies of dolphin sonar.
"At 2 ½ years old he would still be with his mom, most likely, and in the pod," she said. "At this age, they start to get a little independent. He probably went off in one direction, asserting his independence, lost his way, lost his group, and couldn't hear them calling him."
Smith didn't know any details about the researchers who called the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which notified her and sent a boat to help recover the dolphin.
"We loaded him up in a stretcher" and carried him to the boat, she said.
The animal had a sunburn blister that ran from just behind his right eye nearly to his dorsal fin. He was so weak that he had to be kept in a 3-foot-deep outdoor rehabilitation pool, with a staffer present at all times to make sure he didn't drown, Smith said.
After weeks of medication and tube feedings, he was strong enough for a larger tank where he could swim and receive physical therapy that included stretching the area just behind his dorsal fin. He gained 20 pounds, from a starting weight of 190.
"That wound healed up amazingly. He still has a scar that he will have for the rest of his life," Smith said.
The dolphin is officially LA742, but got his nickname because "once he was better he was a little sassy at times," Smith said. "When he started to move a little bit more, he would jerk a little bit or do a little head-bob. Just things like that."
A staffer from the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, Calif., flew out to give Sassafrass a hearing test when he was strong enough to consider release.
Since he can't live on his own, he's going somewhere he can live with and play with other dolphins, Smith said, "which is very exciting."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.