Helping to save sea creatures

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Carol Sorgen

Yvonne Roe gets some help releasing a rehabilitated sea turtle back into the ocean. Roe is one of about 100 animal rescue volunteers with the National Aquarium who help care for and return sea creatures stranded along Maryland’s coast.
Photo courtesy of the National Aquarium

When an undernourished baby porpoise was found stranded in North Carolina several years ago, volunteers from the National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program brought it to the Aquarium’s offsite facility in Fell’s Point. 

The porpoise apparently hadn’t been weaned from its mother because it didn’t even know how to eat fish.

“The poor little animal appeared to try to snuggle against the side of our hospital pool as it swam around,” recalled Jerry Beard, 73, a volunteer with Animal Rescue since 2002.

The volunteers named the porpoise “Gus,” and Beard said, “We had to initially force feed him with gruel while we taught Gus to swallow small fish.”

Before they could release the porpoise into his natural environment, they also had to get him accustomed to the presence of other fish and mammals, so the volunteers put on wet suits and swam around with Gus.

“We weren’t trying to play with or interact with him, because we didn’t want him to associate humans with friendly or life-sustaining behavior.”

After several months in which they basically taught Gus how to be a porpoise, the Aquarium transferred him to a much colder ocean water facility in New England so he could build up the necessary protective layer of fat to survive in the North Atlantic, where he was to be released.

Later, Beard was able to travel with a crew to Maine, where a Coast Guard ship took Gus a few miles into the ocean and let him go.

Such released animals are often fitted with a tracking device so satellites can follow their movements and confirm their survival. “Satellite tracking data showed Gus to be still active more than a month later,” said Beard.

Dependent on volunteers

For the past 25 years, the Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program. has been responsible for responding to stranded marine mammals and sea turtles along the nearly 4,360 miles of Maryland coast.

The program couldn’t succeed without a dedicated group of more than 100 first responders and animal husbandry volunteers, according to Animal Rescue Manager Jennifer Dittmar. “They’re the ones who help us do our jobs,” she said.

Essex resident Yvonne Roe, for example, began volunteering with Animal Rescue shortly after the program began. A soil conservation technician, Roe, now 52, said that her professional job and her volunteer responsibilities dovetail nicely.

“What I do during the day — keeping soil on land and not running into our waterways — helps keep our marine life healthy,” she said.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Roe and fellow conservationists, sea creatures get sick, injured or stranded. When that happens, Roe and other volunteers work with the Aquarium veterinarians and other specialists to care for the animals — feeding, cleaning, administering medicine, and getting into the cold-water tanks to encourage the marine mammals to get some exercise.

“What’s not to love about swimming with dolphins?” said Roe, adding that she feels that it’s a privilege to be able to work with creatures that most people will never have the opportunity to see.

As the story of Gus indicates, among the most emotional aspects of the work for the staff and volunteers is the release back into the sea of animals that have been returned to health by the program.

Roe fondly remembers “Cookie,” a gray seal that helped bring her and her father closer together. Roe believed her father had never understood her fascination with sea creatures. 

When he happened to be staying nearby on the weekend scheduled for Cookie’s release, she invited him to join her for the event. 

“My father had served in the Navy, and believed the sea is for man,” she said. “But after seeing Cookie returned to her native habitat, and how hard we had worked to make her healthy again, he finally understood what is so special to me about putting these creatures back where they should be.

“It was a bonding moment for us,” Roe recalled, adding that now her father regularly asks her about what she’s doing at the Aquarium.

According to Dittmar, Animal Rescue has successfully rescued, treated and returned 177 animals to their natural habitats, including harbor, gray, harp and hooded seals; sea turtles (green, loggerhead, and the rare, endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles); rough-toothed dolphins; a harbor porpoise; a manatee, and a pygmy sperm whale named “Inky,” who was nursed back to health over a period of six months after ingesting a lot of plastic. (Workers believe Inky confused the floating plastic with squid.)

Beard was enlisted in the rescue crew 14 years ago, when the Animal Rescue Manager at the time attended Beard’s church and mentioned that he was looking for a volunteer who understood the tracking data used to follow the animals that are rehabbed and released. (The Aquarium posts such data on its website so the public can see where released animals go.)

“He found out I was a retired electrical engineer and snapped me up,” Beard laughed.

Beard, who lives in Pasadena, has had a strong attachment to the sea ever since serving in the Navy. He now spends more than 250 hours a year volunteering at the Aquarium, not only with Animal Rescue, but also setting up exhibits and doing community outreach.

“I’m proud to be part of this,” he said. “People from all over the world know about the Aquarium and come to visit.”

First responders

Animal Rescue volunteers spend 100 hours performing general volunteer duties at the Aquarium before receiving more specialized training, said Dittmar. 

While Roe and Beard perform animal husbandry duties, volunteers like Chuck and Ellen Erbe and their son, Tom, are first responders — those who are first on the scene when the Aquarium receives a call about an animal in distress.

 First responders identify the species, take photos, relay signs and symptoms to the Aquarium staff, and secure the scene to keep the animal safe from onlookers.

The Erbes live in coastal Delaware, and since 2009 have responded to well over 200 calls, helped transport 48 seals to the Aquarium, traveled more than 34,000 miles, and donated more than 4,000 volunteer hours.

“We’ve only lost one seal in that time,” said Chuck Erbe, adding that being able to assist in the release of the animals when they’re rehabbed is a “happy day.”

“One of the blessings of this work,” said Ellen Erbe, “is meeting like-minded and like-spirited people who all have the same heart. It’s a privilege to be a part of this.”

If you’d like to help

The National Aquarium has a variety of volunteer opportunities available — from exhibit guides to certified divers to horticulture assistants, to name just a few. For details, call the Volunteer Office at (410) 576-3886 or email volunteer@aqua.org.

The Aquarium, which opened its doors 35 years ago, on August 8, 1981, is located at 501 E. Pratt St. More than a million visitors a year come to see its living collection of more than 20,000 fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and marine mammals.

Visiting hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.

Ticket prices are $39.95 for adults ($36.95 if 60+), and $24.95 for children ages 3 to 11.

Call (410) 576-3800 or visit www.aqua.org for more information.

To reach the Stranded Animal Hotline, call (410) 576-3880 or the Natural Resources Police at 1-800-628-9944.