STONE HARBOR – The 65-foot fin whale that washed ashore on an Ocean City beach in January died from a boat strike so severe, its intestines were forced into its chest cavity. That was the conclusion of the technicians of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, who performed an on-site necropsy before dismembering and burying the animal.
On Saturday, March 17, about 40 people gathered at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor to become official volunteers for the center, based in Brigantine. In the future, they may find themselves standing watch over stranded animals until a professional can come to its aid, and explaining to an ever-curious public why they cannot approach a marine mammal – whether it is injured, sick or well – on beaches, in the water, or anywhere else in the state. If they have a strong constitution, they may also assist in necropsies or burials.
The stranding center, founded in 1978 by Sheila Dean and Bob Schoelkopf, relies on volunteers to support its professional staff. Just three staff technicians respond to strandings, which can number in the hundreds each year. Jay Pagel, Bill Deerr and Brandi Biehl cover all of New Jersey, and sometimes help stranded mammals and sea turtles in neighboring states.
The volunteers learned about the types of animals they may see in their work. The most common are harp seals, grey seals and harbor seals. When the center learns of a stranding, it dispatches a local volunteer to report on the animal’s size and condition, take pictures and measurements, and then keep the public at a safe remove until the pros arrive.
Crowd control is an important part of the job. Some onlookers get “very emotional” when they see an animal in distress, said education coordinator Halley Martinez. Some insist on getting close enough to take pictures, even at the risk of frightening an injured animal back into the water.
But not all animals on the beach are sick. If a seal is plump and bright-eyed, and reclining in the “banana” position, with its rear flippers slightly aloft, it’s usually just taking some sun, Martinez said.
“Even though seals are docile – they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them – they will try to defend themselves,” said Martinez, adding that it’s against the law to physically interact with a marine mammal or sea turtle. In 2011, a woman tried to handle a grey seal pup and was bitten. She could have been subject to a fine or even prison, said Martinez, but authorities “thought the bite was punishment enough.”
The pup was quarantined until it was determined it did not carry any disease or parasites, and “cried the whole time” it was held at the center, said Martinez. “He was like, ‘I’m innocent, I’m innocent.’ He was so upset.”
When dolphins and whales beach themselves, they’re usually too sick to be rehabilitated. Deerr noted that beached dolphins can be dangerous because they may thrash, and untrained onlookers can be hurt if they stand near them at either the head or tail.
The chief risks for marine mammals are environmental pollution and trash – an animal that swallows a plastic bag is almost certain to die – along with entanglement in fishing nets; boat strikes; and lack of food that can lead to dehydration and disorientation. Military testing is also a problem because it can interfere with dolphins’ sonar.
Bonnie Ault of Ocean City signed up for the workshop after attending a meeting of the Ocean City Environmental Commission following the whale’s death.
The stranding center “was asking for volunteers, and they have very few paid personnel,” she said. “I’m always on the beach and I thought I could possibly lend a hand.”
Sheila McCallum, a high school science teacher from Stone Harbor, said she is “always on the water and on the bay and on the beach. I thought I would help out since I’m here so much.”
Schoelkopf said volunteers are “invaluable” to the wildlife rescue organization, which is facing massive cuts in federal grant money. President Barack Obama wants to end $100,000 in grants from the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance program, almost one-sixth of the center’s annual budget.
“It’s rough,” said Schoelkopf. “We’re working at capacity now, and the only cutting we could do is staffing-wise. We can’t cut insurance, we can’t cut fuel, we can’t cut parkway expenses” for technicians who travel up and down the coast to rescue sites. “We’re relying more on fundraisers to generate more money.”
That makes volunteers even more essential, he said. “We can never have enough.”
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center is located at 3625 Brigantine Blvd. For more information, call (609) 266-0538 or see www.marinemammalstrandingcenter.org.