Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Marine Mammal Stranding Network - science, and a love of animals

Underlying the strong commitment of volunteers to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network is their love for the warm-blooded inhabitants of the Salish Sea.

Wendy Feltham, former PTMSC Board Chair, citizen scientist
and photographer extraordinaire! Image by Champion Productions.
Former PTMSC Board Chair and longtime MMSN volunteer Wendy Feltham speaks for many when she says: “I volunteer for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network because the seals, sea lions, elephant seals, and other marine mammals need and deserve to be protected. We are lucky to live by the Salish Sea with so many remarkable animals!”

The love for marine mammals has no age limits. In 2013, Ella Ashford, then age 12, wrote about her encounter with a stranded northern elephant seal pup in downtown Port Townsend.

One summer day while walking with her mother, the couple spotted something unusual on the driftwood-covered beach at Adams Street Park.

“Then to my surprise, one of the logs moved! That’s when I realized it was a very sandy seal,” Ashford wrote. 

A very sandy seal! Photo by Steven Urbanc.

Little did she know she was about to embark on a weeklong vigil to protect the young mammal from harm.

“I was there every day and a few nights, too,” Ashford wrote. “The community became so attached to the seal we even named him. His name is Star. I felt like the name fit, he was the ‘star’ of Port Townsend, that’s for sure.”

Star and Ashford were written up in the local newspaper and many townspeople stopped by to see the young seal.
"Star," the northern elephant seal pup that captivated downtown Port Townsend in 2013.
Casey Gluckman, an 11-year MMSN volunteer, recalled another stranding episode in downtown Port Townsend, when two several-hundred-pound northern elephant seals chose the city’s beachfront as their molting spot.

“They kept us hopping,” remembered Gluckman, “especially the one that went for a stroll in the middle of Water Street and had to be ‘encouraged’ back to the beach.

Marine Mammal Stranding Network volunteer Casey Gluckman
“I love helping with the stranding program,” Gluckman says today. “Every call is a different chance to learn more, and answering questions from the public is always rewarding for both the questioner and for me.”

In 2015, AmeriCorps Marine Mammal Stranding Educator Katie Conroy described her first stranding response.

“As we walked up to it, my heart started to melt,” Conroy wrote. “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.”

One of the most important decisions for MMSN responders is to remember their training and give stranded animals space and time to return to their natural habitat. In fact, the Marine Mammal Protection Act protects marine mammals from any human interaction.

“My maternal seal instincts kicked in and all I wanted to do was make sure this adorable sleeping seal pup would be okay,” Conroy continued. “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.

Harbor Seal pup sleeping on the beach! Photo by Katie Conroy.
“The next day I checked where the seal had been, and it was gone,” Conroy wrote. “It must have woken up from its slumber and gone back to the sea where its actual mother was waiting, too scared to come ashore.”

When describing the joys of being a MMSN volunteer, former PTMSC board member Jan North says it best.

Former PTMSC board member and citizen scientist Jan North.
“By volunteering with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, I am constantly learning about the lives and behaviors of the seals, sea lions, harbor porpoises, and whales which share our Salish Sea waters and shores. Whether I’m ‘seal pup sitting’ in a public area or measuring and recording a deceased sea lion, it’s so much fun to share ideas with others when I'm on one of our wonderful beaches.”

Interested in learning more about the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and becoming an on-call stranding response volunteer? There are two upcoming training sessions:
  • Tuesday, April 30 in the PTMSC Museum classroom from 1-5 p.m.
  • A May training in the Brinnon/Quilcene area, time and location TBA.

MMSN training includes:
  • Marine mammal stranding network history and purpose
  • Marine mammal species identification
  • Your role as a responder to both live and dead animals
  • How to be a “seal sitter”
  • Practice responding to stranded animals
For more information, contact Mandi Johnson at mjohnson@ptmsc.org or Betsy Carlson at bcarlson@ptmsc.org.

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