Skip to content

Welcome to our blog!

July 21, 2010
Meeting Dolphins at National Aquarium

Sara and Spirit

From August 10-19, 2011 sixteen educators will blog their way along the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to New England and back as they learn about the effects of climate change on marine mammals.

NOAA  (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) U.S. Department of Commerce






The Marine Mammal Institute is funded through NOAA’s Ocean Education Grant #FNAO9SEC4690038 awarded to the North Carolina Aquarium Society.


Day 6 and 7: New England Aquarium

August 18, 2011
Martha and Ursula

Martha and Ursula

Day 6: Seals and Aquarium tour

In the middle of a pouring rain we arrived at the Parker House, one of Boston’s most historic locations and a spectacular accommodation for a weary group. A short walk  landed us at the New England Aquarium where Kara Mahoney greeted us. After touring the Aquarium for a short while the group met up with Kara again, who introduced us to Belinda and Justin, two of the fur seal trainers. We split up to spend some quality time with Isaac and Ursula, a large male and small female fur seal, respectively. I was with Belinda andUrsula, both charming company. Belinda described concerns about wild fur seal populations. These seals live only in a few colonies on the Pribilof Islands off of Alaska. Alaskan Pollack, used to make imitation crab meat and other seafood products, is one of the seals’ main foods. Increasing competition for limited resources may be a contributing factor to the decline of these animals in the wild.

Following the seal encounter and Aquarium tour, Kara presented her work on North Atlantic right whales. New England Aquarium researches both right and humpback whales.

Day 7: Climate change communication and whale watching

Kara met the group again this morning to share the Aquarium’s outreach activities used to create a better understanding of marine mammals. The group dissected a model porpoise, examined a blubber model and matched humpback whale identification photos. Finally, Kara introduced us to Calvin, a 40’ inflatable right whale modeled after a known female with an interesting tie to North Carolina. Calvin is the calf of Delilah, a right whale killed by a ship strike when Calvin was only six months old. Calvin was born off of Wrightsville Beach, N.C. and documented by researchers at University of North Carolina-Wilmington. After Delilah died researchers assumed Calvin would not survive. However Calvin reappeared a couple of years later, entangled in fishing rope. Fortunately Calvin eventually lost the line – unlike many other less lucky whales – and lived to produce her own offspring. In 2009 Calvin gave birth to a second calf off of Wrightsville Beach, N.C. close to where she was born. The birth of Calvin, and her calf, in North Carolina’s waters indicates the importance of our home state to the survival of this highly endangered species.

After two days of stormy weather, and canceled boat trips, word came through that our whale watch scheduled for the afternoon was a “go.” Kara again accompanied the group as we set off for Stellwagen Bank on the Aquarium’s whale watching boat. The whales did not disappoint us. Humpback and minke whales surfaced near the boat.

Earlier in the day John Anderson, New England Aquarium’s Director of Education, provided an excellent overview of current work among aquariums to create conversations about climate change with guests. Included in the discussion with John was the identification of our “mini-public”. This describes audiences within our sphere of influence; friends, colleagues, family, etc. John’s provocative questions and obvious passion for creating positive change provided focus and inspiration and helped begin to summarize the week’s experience while simultaneously identifying a framework for the future.

Day 5: Beluga whales, penguins and Mystic

August 18, 2011

Beluga whales –  completely irresistible jelly rolls of blubber and a repertoire of sounds. Maybe it’s all the human attributes I projected on to Juno, a nine year old beluga whale, or maybe it’s the compelling story of how closely the fate of beluga whales is tied to Arctic sea ice, whatever the reason, these animals move me. Dolphins, killer whales and other extraordinarily cosmopolitan species can easily out-compete beluga whales in most of the worlds’ ocean. As Arctic sea ice retreats — which it has done steadily for the past decade -– beluga whales lose their competitive edge. Along with the narwhale and bowhead whale, the beluga lives almost exclusively within the Arctic circle, uniquely adapted for life around and under ice. Not everyone will see a beluga whale, in human care or in the wild, in their lifetime. I’ve never seen a narwhale or a bowhead whale, but hope to one day. I believe our world, and we, will be diminished if we lose polar species. I don’t need to see them to know this. Humans fight and die over issues of faith, and inherently and passionately believe in things they’ve never seen. What if the same passion were applied to the stewardship of wildlife and wild places?

Beluga encounter

Juno inspiring Ann

Mystic Aquarium provided the setting for a seminar on climate impacts to marine mammals and penguins, as well as our beluga encounter. Maryellen Mataluksa shared her stories of stranded seals and endangered penguins. Of particular interest was the occurrence of 100 adult harp seals on New England shores this past year. Historically the Aquarium’s rescue center responds to juvenile harp seals and very occasionally an adult. The unprecedented appearance of adults speaks to some change farther north as yet unidentified. Maryellen also gave an overview of the Aquarium’s work with African penguins. These penguins, found only in South Africa, may be extinct in the wild within 20 years. Ocean currents off the coast of South Africa have shifted in the past decade, causing African penguins to swim farther to find their traditional food. Cape fur seals eat the same fish as the penguins and not only compete for limited resources but also kill penguins to get at the fish in their stomachs. Mystic Aquarium’s work on African penguins documents several decades of change to wild populations and indicates a bleak future due to climate change, overfishing and pollution, and their combined effects on these birds.

Back at the hotel in the evening, with a number of options available, the group chose to collectively work on journals. Their efforts, creatively channeling an interest in marine mammals, commitment to behavior change, and knowledge into illustrated stories of their experiences left me feeling fortunate and hopeful.

What a trip!

August 15, 2011

MMI’s trip up the east coast is a vehicular delight! I’m having a great time meeting all the “girls,” sharing information and communing again with the marine mammals I adore. Although I’ve never used the word “awesome” as much as I have on this trip, it’s a perfect way to describe our experiences with the animals and our multiple venues for learning about the impact of climate change on them. I have to “meditate” for a while before I can reflect in writing. I’m not a spontaneous writer, so this blog will be brief. Suffice it to say that this has been and will be a life-changing experience — the only kind I really want!

The Beginning…

August 15, 2011

I woke up this morning and looked at the green glow of my alarm clock.  It read 2:56 am and was set to go off in 4 minutes.  I figured I might as well get up and start the day.  It wasn’t very hard to get going despite the early hour.  For today I was heading to  Raleigh for the first leg of the Marine Mammal Institute adventure; an experience that was going to take me up the East Coast visiting aquariums and museums with a focus on marine mammals and how climate change is impacting these amazing animals.

18 educators from North and South Carolina met at Prairie Ridge, packed the bus, and headed down the road, full of anticipation and excitement!  Little did we know that excitement was right around the corner…or rather a bend in the highway.  Our fearless driver, Martha, executed a smooth maneuver and pulled the bus onto the shoulder of the road after the front left tire burst.  The tire was replaced, and we were on the road again. Unfortunately we missed our visit to the NC Aquarium on  Roanoke Island, but we did get to stop at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head for a quick tour and lunch.

Jennette’s Pier was first opened in 1939 by Warren H. Jennette, Sr. and the Jennette Brothers.  It was purchased by the NC Aquarium Society right before Hurricane Isabel blew through the Outer Banks in 2003.  The Aquarium transformed this 1,000-foot-long concrete pier into a top notch fishing pier, education center and LEED certified structure.  During our tour, it was obvious to us that fishermen and beach-goers love the pier.  What an amazing educational tool for fishery information, ocean studies and green technology.  Panels on the pier provided information on catch and creel limits, local fish species identification, ocean currents circulation and how the three wind turbines on the pier generate electricity.

Following our visit to Jennette’s Pier, we headed back to the bus and down the road to the Virginia Aquarium where we were met by Susan Barco, who heads up the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program and Team.  The program’s mission is all about response, research and rehabilitation of marine mammals that are stranded along our coast.  Susan was a wealth of information on stranding trends, species identification studies, human interaction issues, etc.  Also, that evening the stranding team was in the process of locating a whale that had been sighted and seemed to be in distress.   More details on that later!

The day ended at the Double Tree Hotel in Virginia Beach.  What a day it had been, and it was only the beginning!

My face hurts from smiling so much! :)

August 15, 2011

We are only half way through, and I can already say this has been one of the most amazing weeks of my life.  There have been so many amazing experiences in the past few days, but I am going to share two that have really touched my heart.  First, we had the opportunity to meet Harbor Seals and their trainers at the Virginia Aquarium.  I got to know Norton, one of the Aquarium’s male Harbor Seals.  It was so neat to watch the interactions between him and his trainer.  It was especially touching to watch after finding out that Norton was partially (if not fully) blind.  It is normal for these marine mammals to develop cataracts in their eyes as they age.  However, Norton’s cataracts did not interfere with his ability to listen attentively to and take directions from his trainer.  I also found it interesting that the trainers never force the seals to work; at any point in the training session, the seals are able to leave if they don’t feel like participating.  I think I asked the trainers about 100 questions because I was absolutely fascinated by our first marine mammal encounter of the trip.

Our next stop was at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.  So far, this day has been the highlight of my trip, as we were able to meet their entire fleet of dolphins.  I was paired with trainer Carrie and her primary dolphin, the eldest female, Nani.  Nani weighs in at a little over 500 lbs (of pure love).  She was absolutely breath-taking.  Carrie had us touch Nani’s melon, flippers and back.  We also got to give Nani some commands.  We asked her to slap the water with her flippers, spin and even do her famous cart-wheel.  Carrie told to us what a typical day in the life of a marine mammal trainer is like, and explained how much hard work goes into caring for these animals.  After the dolphin encounter, I literally could not stop smiling. My face and cheek muscles hurt!  I feel as though this experience re-lit a flame in my heart for pursuing a career in marine mammal training.  It’s simply amazing what 15 minutes with a stranger with flippers can do to you. 🙂

I feel is though I am learning so much wonderful information! I can’t wait to bring it back to Charleston and share what I have learned!

Beluga Bliss!!

August 15, 2011

To steal Liz’s catchphrase from yesterday, I think we were all in “Beluga bliss” after our encounters at Mystic Aquarium. Luckily I had the foresight at orientation in June to sign up for the first morning session of the encounters; I think I would have burst with excitement otherwise. The night leading up to the encounter was a little bit like Christmas morning…I had a tough time getting to sleep, and then woke up raring and ready to go see what Santa had brought me; in this case, it was a sweet Beluga whale named Naku. After arriving at the aquarium, I had to force myself to focus on the seminar at hand and the topic du jour: climate change and how it negatively influences  Belugas, African penguins, Harp seals, and different species of frogs. Mary Ellen was a phenomenal educator and kept us all motivated and involved throughout the seminar. Climate change talks can be a bit of a downer, so I love getting new ideas for how to broach the topic with the public without using complete gloom and doom. Mary Ellen was extremely passionate about the cause and making people realize that climate change needs to be addressed in our lifetime, but she was equally as passionate about showing people how to make a difference. Even the smallest of children can have a positive impact and as an educator I know that if you can get the kids on your side, the parents will often follow suit! Following the seminar was the Beluga encounter. The pouring rain did nothing to dampen our group’s spirits as we piled into waders and made our way into the 50 degree water. Thirty bliss-filled minutes later, our encounter was over and our hearts were forever changed due to a sweet 1600 pound whale named Naku. I’m looking forward to the rest of the trip, and it’s nice to know that in the back of my mind whenever I talk about climate change, I’ll be thinking about Naku and whales just like her whose lives hang in the balance every day we make bad decisions about the environment. I guess you could say Naku and her friends have become mascots for me, and I a champion for their cause. ~Natalie

Eyes of curiosity

August 15, 2011

After finally having a chance to sit down and reflect on the highlights of the trip so far (and being at a hotel that offers free wireless in our room), I am able to submit my first ever blog. Memories of all the great information on climate change we’ve been presented with and of the time and resources the wonderful educators we’ve met have so willingly shared with us are recorded as notes that will be surely incorporated into future programming.

But the moments that don’t need to be written down are recorded in my mind and heart forever. Staff from the Virginia Aquarium took us behind the scenes into the harbor seal exhibit and let us take turns petting a seal. The seal’s big brown eyes were so engaging. During my group’s turn we even got to see Norton, one of the seals, paint with a brush! My second most memorable moment came at the Baltimore Aquarium, when, in even smaller groups, we interacted with a bottlenose dolphin and a trainer. During my time with Spirit, I gave her signals, petted her and even got a hug! Pictures to come later. The dolphins never took their eyes off of us, always curious for our next move.

Sara and group with Beluga WhaleI knew even after those moments of excitement, I was most looking forward to our time in Mystic, which came today. I have never visited this facility before and was looking forward to it the most. The Aquarium is gorgeous, and their staff is also so welcoming. But the smiles that can’t be wiped off our faces come from our time in the Beluga encounters. To have a 1400 pound beluga whale press against your side for a kiss on the cheek is something that will never be forgotten, no notes necessary. Of course sitting where Julia Roberts once stepped foot (Mystic Pizza movie reference) is also exciting, but nowhere close to the seal, dolphin or beluga experiences. I sit here with a belly full of Mystic Pizza and have to remind myself that there are still more adventures to come.

Looking forward to visiting Boston and going whale watching!

Thus far an epic adventure!

August 15, 2011

I didn’t blog last night as I was exhausted after a long day of extended travel, interspersed with fun activities such as lunch on Jennette’s Pier and a talk by Susan Barco at the Virginia Aquarium. (Lesson from Susan’s talk: Don’t use Spectra for any of your fishing needs; this stuff is horrible for the environment and the animals that live in it!)  Learned a lot of interesting information about Bottlenose Dolphin phylogeny, the use of dolphin photo ID data and why marine mammal stranding work is so important beyond just trying to save the stranded animal. Yesterday we also had our fill of cookies: homemade cookies during the bus trip, cookies at  lunch, cookies at dinner and, because we discussed the cookie onslaught on the bus ride to the hotel,  warm cookies at check-in.  I have no will power and of course I ate them. (I mean, how can one refuse a warm cookie with chocolate?!).

Quote of the day, “Who wants some tire?” After our tire blew out near Zebulon yesterday some of us saved pieces of it for our journal!

Today was amazing.  A behind the scenes tour at the Virginia Aquarium followed by a Harbor Seal encounter.  Our group got to meet (and pet!) Peter, one of the Aquarium’s seals, who diligently touched the white target while our pictures were taken.  Then to answer our question if he painted, his trainers let him paint for us.  Peter is known for sticking to the canvas and making perfectly straight vertical lines — awesome!  We toured the rest of the Aquarium in front of the scenes and I loved how each room was a theme that was able to transport you into a forest, or a tent or a submarine….I’m not sure what my favorite exhibit was, but I did love the sea turtle nursery!

After the aquarium walk-about we had lunch. Yes, there were cookies, but we saved them for the seal trainers. The trainers complained about people throwing food to the seals (thankfully the seals are very picky and won’t eat anything people throw into the tank) and that the food is always soggy (and inedible by humans) by the time it is discovered.  After lunch we went out on our dolphin quest.  I think we saw at least 15 dolphins, including a calf!  At some point we realized that we all kept squealing like 4-year-olds every time we saw one, but we didn’t care.  It’s nice to be surrounded by fellow marine maniacs!

After the satisfying dolphin tour (although the wild dolphins we saw didn’t jump, pause and smile before landing back in the water), we went to the Marine Mammal Stranding building, which is located out in the middle of nowhere (we suspect due to the smells) for a necropsy.  The stranding team had attempted to rescue a female Pygmy Sperm Whale the night before but sadly had to euthanize her because she was so badly injured. The team would like to have brought the female’s calf, which had been seen earlier near its mother, back to the facility, but there was no sign of the youngster. Hopefully the calf is safe.  As soon as the whale was brought back to the center they started the necropsy.  Since that was at 3am and we didn’t arrive till 4 pm or so we missed that one. But they had thawed a Harbor Porpoise for us to watch and “help” with.  By help I mean we got to ask questions and pass pieces around.  Very cool.  I haven’t seen a marine mammal necropsy since my junior year at UNCW and it was thrilling to re-learn some facts as well as learn new ones….such as porpoises have 3 stomachs and their kidney is actually a bunch of little kidneys stuck all together.

Dinner was fantastic and some of us decided to walk the mile or so back so we could see some of the street fair going on.  If you want to experience Jersey Shore in the south go to Virginia Beach.

Time for bed as we have another long drive tomorrow — luckily Natalie bought a coloring book for us at the gift shop so we have another craft!

Quote of the day, “I’ll go find you an ovary.” (said during the necropsy)

Day 4: Baltimore to Mystic

August 15, 2011

Dolphins + skilled staff + animal contact = Marine Mammal Institute bliss. Nancy Hotchkiss worked with the National Aquarium’s animal care staff to arrange a special encounter behind the scenes. Two to three participants shared about 30 minutes with one trainer and a dolphin. Training staff used the time to integrate dolphin physiology and behavior with opportunities for interaction. From splashing people to calmly inviting back rubs, the dolphins captivated their human audience. It would be hard, after getting up close and personal, to ignore our ability to work for a better future for these intelligent animals who rely on humans to maintain a healthy ocean.

What an amazing experience!

August 14, 2011

This trip has been so amazing, it’s hard to express its amazingness in a blog.  We have gotten to see so many awesome animals and institutions while also learning about how many of our human actions have unintentionally harmed wild ocean life.  Getting to see seals, dolphins, and beluga whales up close and personal has given them a bigger place in my heart than they had before.  We have met so many amazing educators and trainers at each institution who put their hearts into their jobs and their message of conservation.  Many human actions affect these animals and sometimes we don’t even realize it. Out in the ocean things are out of sight out of mind.  Learning about the research going into learning more about the functions of these animals and the changes in their environments has been eye-opening.  I’m looking forward to learning more in the next 5 days, and then taking my new-found knowledge with me back to North Carolina where I can hopefully share my experiences with others.  Hopefully small changes can help make a difference!