In 1987, cetacean morbillivirus killed more than 740 dolphins along the Eastern Seaboard. As people found carcasses on the beaches in
But there was no stranding team to respond.
When scientists came to
They couldn't answer the scientists' questions about dolphin habits in the area, but they picked up carcasses, performed necropsies and recorded data.
"We got involved because we were the locals," Swingle said.
"That intense four- to five-month period of time... planted the seed for our stranding program."
The experience also highlighted just how much they had to learn if they wanted to help.
Initially, Swingle said, he was probably the only museum staffer with any time built into his full-time job to work on the team. With volunteers, the primary goal was to respond to every stranding so they could learn everything possible about the animals living nearby.
With a first-year budget of about
"We took the data that we could, and then we would bury them," Swingle said.
But even in death, the animals helped.
"These animals were like gold for us," he said. "We could learn things you couldn't from live, wild animals."
In 1995, Swingle helped open the
"We outgrew the place probably three years after we got here," he said.
During a recent tour, he pointed out the changes made over the years to maximize space.
A portion of the building is filled with desks and cubicles. Necropsies are performed in a tent outside.
The other part of the building is where animals are kept.
All are temporary guests. Some are destined for the aquarium. Others are treated for maladies and returned to the ocean.
Recently, several tanks were filled with sea turtles. Reminders not to let them see how food got into the tanks were written in marker on duct tape. A wall displayed pictures and names and explained how each animal came to the center.
"They each have a story," said
Scientists at the museum know a lot more about the animals that live nearby than they did in 1987. For example, said Swingle, it was once thought that dolphins moved up and down the coast. Now we know they're part of different regional populations, or stock, that can number in the thousands.
The stranding team's volunteer population has ballooned and thinned over the years.
At its peak, there were about 170 volunteers. Swingle called it unmanageable. Now there are 65 to 70 volunteers scheduled to be on call.
There are two shifts each day. Five people are scheduled to be on call for each shift. The stranding team covers the state of
Once a group of well-meaning, local volunteers who didn't know what to do in 1987, the stranding team is now responsible for having developed human interaction protocols that are used throughout the country, and some of the aquarium's staff have earned national reputations in their field of study.
"There's nothing in here," Swingle said of the
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