Tuesday, November 24, 2015

My First Stranding as the Americorps Marine Mammal Stranding Educator

Nine days. It only took nine days to get my first stranding call. Actually, by the official definition, it was not technically a stranding.  However, I am going to count it because it was a good, easy call to start my Americorps term as the Marine Mammal Stranding Educator.

I’m from Brooklyn, New York. We don’t have many marine mammals in those waters. My first experience with them was after college and ever since then I’ve stayed close to the field volunteering for organizations involved with stranding, but this was my first interaction with a stranding as the marine mammal stranding member — I was excited.

Before I go on, let me first define what a stranding actually is. A stranding is when a marine mammal is in one of four different situations:
  1. In a place that is dangerous to humans or animals
  2.  Dead on shore or in the water
  3.  On shore and able to return to the water, but in need of medical assistance
  4.  In the water but not able to return to its natural habitat without assistance
My first "stranding" was none of those.

It was 5:30 pm on a Saturday. I had just closed the Orca Exhibit and I was tired. Neil, the intern, had left the building right before me. By the time I had gathered my things and locked up he was back at the entrance wearing the same tired look as I wore on my face. “There is a seal pup down the beach.” 

It was in front of the camping kitchen, so not far at all. As we walked up to it, my heart started to melt. It was the cutest thing I had ever seen! It was not more than two or three months old and it was just resting so peacefully on the beach. It looked so comfortable and content and at one point it stretched its little flippers and yawned. I wanted to hug it, I wanted to pick it up and snuggle with it. But then I remember the Marine Mammal Protection Act and decided against a huge fine and possible jail time.

Harbor Seal pup sleeping on the beach.
Isn't it the cutest thing you have ever seen?!?!
Normally I would have called volunteers to sit with the seal, but it was after 5:30 pm and slowly getting dark. In any other situation, I would not have hesitated leaving the seal to sleep on the shore — even though they are marine mammals, seals spend some of their time on land to rest. This time was different; it just so happened that there was a party in the camping kitchen only 20 feet away!

My maternal seal instincts kicked in and all I wanted to do was make sure this adorable sleeping seal pup would be okay. I wanted to protect it from any sniffing dogs and curious children. After about 30 minutes of setting up a barrier of driftwood pieces, I finally said my goodbyes and went home.

Now, I do not have children, but I’m sure that the painful, heart-wrenching feeling of saying goodbye to this seal pup is exactly how all parents feel when they drop their kid off at school for the first time. I was so scared for the seal pup, but I was also tired and hungry so I decided to go home. After all, the seal was not hurt and there was nothing else I could have done.

The next day I checked where the seal had been, and it was gone. It must have woken up from its slumbers and gone back to the sea where its actual mother was waiting, too scared to come ashore. I am happy that it safely made it back to its natural habitat, but secretly (or not so secretly) I wish I could have kept it in a bath tub in my office.

So if you remember anything from this story, remember that seals need their rest. It is natural for them to come on to shore and sleep. They don’t check to make sure people are not there, they just wiggle their cute bodies out of the water and onto the sand.

If you do see an injured or dead marine mammal, give us a call at 1-(360) 385-5582 x 103! And remember, don’t hug a sleeping seal! As fun as that may be, the Marine Mammal Protection Act protects seals, and other marine mammals from any humans interaction. So give it at least 100 yards of space and let it rest.

KATIE CONROY is the Marine Mammal Stranding Educator and an AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sea Star Wasting Strikes Again

Today through Friday, 12/18, the Port Townsend Marine Science Center is seeking to meet a $3,000 match challenge from a generous donor. Donate today and every dollar you give will go twice as far. With your help, we will meet our goal of raising $15,000 for our annual fund to double our impact next year. Thank you for helping to inspire conservation of the Salish Sea and monitor the health of our local ocean.

During my first week at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, our tanks suffered a minor catastrophe. We had another small bloom of sea star wasting disease, a notorious viral infection that has been killing off sea stars all along the north Pacific coast. 

I have personally seen the effects of wasting on beaches from Alaska to California, so I was anxious to see it in a captive setting. It’s a pretty depressing progression, that’s for sure. I watched four sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthiodes) progress from behaving unnaturally to losing limbs in a matter of a few days. 

However upsetting the disease is, it is fascinating and heartening to see the work the PTMSC is putting in to tracking and understanding it. Along with other aquaria, the PTMSC observers noted that the first stage of the disease is a behavioral one. Stars act lethargic and twist their arms across one another. This observation has allowed the Science Center volunteers and staff to detect the presence of the disease before any animals show more classic physical symptoms. 

The PTMSC runs a citizen science monitoring program of its tanks and of nearby subtidal and intertidal plots. Volunteers and staff gather data on the health of many different species and populations of stars in Strait of Jaun de Fuca water. These data are shared with the University of California Santa Cruz and other organizations monitoring the disease. 

Hopefully we are contributing to a better understanding of the disease, its symptoms, and its spread in our ecosystem.

A sunflower star with wasting that has started to lose limbs. 

A sunflower star with wasting. Note the white lesions and deflated appearance.

Zofia and me removing a sick sea star from the cluster tanks. I was very close to trading places with the sea star that day! 

REBECCA MOSTOW is the Marine Exhibit Educator and an AmeriCorps member at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.