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WELLFLEET, Massachusetts - There's no good spot on Cape Cod for dolphins to beach themselves, but on this cold, gray day a group of 11 has chosen one of the worst.
The remote inlet down Wellfleet's Herring River is a place where the tides recede fast and far, and that's left the animals mired in a grayish-brown mud one local calls "Wellfleet mayonnaise".
Walking is the only way to reach the animals, but it's not easy. Rescuers crunch through cord grass and seashells before hitting a grabby muck that releases footsteps with a sucking pop. One volunteer hits a thigh-deep hole and tumbles forward. Mud covers his face like messy war paint.
It's a scene that's played itself out all winter long, and scientists have no idea why. A year ago, the 11 dolphins that stranded themselves on Tuesday would have been a remarkable number. Now they're just added to an ever-growing tally.
In the last month, 178 short-beaked common dolphins have stranded on Cape Cod, and 125 have died. The total is nearly five times the average of 37 common dolphins that have stranded each of the past 12 years.
Workers at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which has led the rescue efforts, tag and take blood from the stranded animals. Necropsies have been done on dead dolphins, and a Congressional briefing was held this month in the push for answers. But researchers can offer only theories such as changes in weather, water temperature or behavior of the dolphins' prey.
Geography may also play a role, if the dolphins are getting lost along the Cape's jagged inner coastline in towns such as Wellfleet.
In mid-February, Wellfleet feels like a place long emptied out after a dimly remembered party. A drive into town takes you past a closed mini-golf course, candy store and drive-in theater. A downtown road rolls by shuttered cottages and motel cabins.
But Wellfleet is a hot spot for the dolphin strandings, in part because of features such as Jeremy Point, a thin peninsula that blocks the way to Cape Cod Bay if the dolphins wander too far into the town's harbor, as they did on Tuesday.
The rescuers make a quick assessment once they reach the 11 animals.