Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Magnificence of Marine Mammals, Part 1

The Port Townsend Marine Science Center has a long history of supporting marine mammal education and protection, as well as advocating for programs and policies that safeguard their health and well-being. Octopress-- the PTMSC newsletter started several years after the non-profit was founded by Judy D’Amore and Libby Palmer – provides a wealth of anecdotal examples.

One of the first compelling stories, recorded in the Fall 1986 Octopress, concerned a stranded harbor seal pup.

Itti-Vik, a stranded harbor seal pup.
Itti-Vik, as he came to be called by a caring group of 20 PTMSC volunteers, was abandoned by his mother in early July. With no formal training on how to deal with strandings, the group placed many phone calls to area veterinarians and seal researchers in order to collect information and develop a feeding schedule. In the process, they discovered Itti-Vik had been born prematurely. Taking shifts, the team worked around the clock to rehabilitate the pup, giving him electrolytic liquids, whole herring, a fat-protein supplement, vitamins and antibiotic injections. Eventually Itti-Vik’s care was turned over to a Kingston vet who had maintained a seal rehabilitation center for a number of years.

The experience, retold in this 2012 blog post, was a tremendous learning opportunity for the PTMSC and its volunteers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had established the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network (MMSN) in the early 1980s under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, but the MMSN rollout was still underway (the Northwest network was not formalized until 1992) when Itti-Vik was found. Armed now with the procedures to properly respond to marine mammal strandings, the PTMSC leveraged this episode to become one of the earliest MMSN response organizations in the Pacific Northwest.

Of course, wild mammals living in and around the PTMSC were nothing new. River otters, though not marine mammals, made their dens in the nearby hills and frequently used the floating dock adjacent to the Marine Exhibit as a play area. When not munching on crabs and sculpins caught below, the fun-loving animals took great delight in chasing each other around the dock, and still do to this day.
River otters
The activities of the otters, along with the many varieties of marine mammals, fish and birds that inhabit the Salish Sea, were the subject of PTMSC summer school programs for youths of all ages. In fact, youth summer camps were one of the first and most enduring programs offered by the PTMSC.

An excerpt from the Fall 1990 Octopress recalled:

This summer, the Center offered two, one-week sessions of camp. We spent two very full weeks exploring the marine environment through observation and hands-on activities. These activities included beach seines, fossil hunts, tide pool exploration, expeditions up Chimacum Creek to explore wild salmon habitat, and exercises and games to help define terms like “habitat” and “observation.

The PTMSC also has a strong legacy of offering courses and lectures that provide adults in-depth knowledge about marine mammals and the ocean environment. For example, in the spring of 1996, PTMSC Educator Kay Addington-MacDonald launched a 7-week course, "Marine Birds & Mammals," that was offered through Peninsula College. The popular course was offered numerous times in the following years.

The Winter 1990 Octopress told the story of a young orca whale found dead in Alberni Inlet in Barkley Sound, located on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The dead cetacean was from the L pod (identified as L14), a teenage male 18-20 feet in length and weighing around 5,000 lbs. Although baseline levels of mercury in orcas had not been established at the time, a necropsy revealed L14 had extremely high levels of mercury in his liver and scientists suspected it was the probable cause of his death.
Orca illustration from the Winter 1990 Octopress

The account of L14’s demise was an eye-opener for the PTMSC, its supporters and the local community, revealing the many stresses—both environmental and man-made—that apex predators must withstand to survive in the Salish Sea.

The tale also foreshadowed one of the PTMSC’s most ambitious educational projects, originating with a transient female orca (CA189) that beached herself near Dungeness Spit in 2002 and died shortly thereafter. The flensing (the practice of removing tissue from the skeleton of a carcass, especially that of a whale), necropsy and subsequent skeleton articulation was a major undertaking by the PTMSC and its supporters. The Fall 2010 Octopress describes the extensive effort, including a significant campaign that eventually funded the refitting of the Museum to display the orca skeleton, named “Hope” following a community-wide naming contest.

CA189 stranded near Dungeness Spit in 2002
Hope’s skeleton, whose articulation was led by renowned “Boneman” Lee Post, is now the centerpiece of an educational display that teaches visitors how this majestic mammal lived and died. “The Story of Hope” -- including the documentation that Hope carried one of the highest loads of PCBs and DDT ever tested in a marine mammal – received extensive media coverage at the time and is described in detail in the summer and fall 2011 issues of Octopress, as well as online at the PTMSC website and blog and in the video “An Orca Named Hope.”

To be continued...

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