News Column

Stranding team's volunteers built solid foundation

June 1, 2014

By Lauren King, The Virginian-Pilot



June 01--VIRGINIA BEACH -- When dead dolphins began washing up on beaches last year, experience gave members of the Virginia Marine Stranding Team a hint of what was coming.

In 1987, cetacean morbillivirus killed more than 740 dolphins along the Eastern Seaboard. As people found carcasses on the beaches in Virginia, they started calling the year-old Virginia Marine Science Museum (now known as the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center).

But there was no stranding team to respond.

When scientists came to Virginia Beach to research the deaths, staffers from the museum volunteered their free time to help. Those with full-time jobs easily spent about 40 hours volunteering, said Mark Swingle, then a museum aquarist and now the aquarium's director of research and conservation.

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.

The Marine Science Museum established its program in 1989 and received its first permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service a year later, joining the Northeast regional stranding network.

Congress passed an act facilitating the collection and distribution of data on stranded marine mammals and health trends of the population in the wild, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

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 $10,000 and no dedicated work space, they frequently improvised. Necropsies were sometimes performed on a tarp in the parking lot.

"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 Marine Animal Care Center about 3 miles away from the aquarium.

"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 Joan Barns, a Virginia Aquarium spokeswoman.

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 Virginia and is sometimes called to help in northeastern North Carolina.

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 Marine Animal Care Center, "that wasn't done with volunteer help."

Lauren King, 757-446-2309, lauren.king@pilotonline.com

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Source: Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)