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Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center

August 12, 2011

By Peggy Sloan

At the Virginia Aquarium and Science Center, Elizabeth Miller and Chris Witherspoon prepared an excellent agenda for the group, including a tour behind the scenes of the Aquarium and a “meet and greet” with harbor seals. We learned from Susan the night before that the number and frequency of harp seals, an ice-loving relative of the harbor seal, in Virginia and North Carolina is on the rise. (Harp seals are familiar to many people as the wide-eyed white pups replicated in stuffed toys and used as an iconic image for wildlife conservation.) The Aquarium’s research assistant, Jackie Bort, shared her experience from earlier in the year of working with a stranded harp seal pup in Maine. Seal pup strandings are highly unusual and researchers were unable to find an explanation for this event in Maine. We know from researchers at Duke Marine Laboratory that some populations of harp seals are suffering from the loss of sea ice in the Arctic. Harp seals nurse for only a few days before becoming independent. They rely on ice to grow and gain confidence to fish and swim on their own; without it they die. Some harp seal populations, in the absence of sea ice, have ceased to successfully reproduce, with 100% mortality among  new born pups.

Bottlenoe DolphinIn the afternoon we boarded a ship and cruised off the coast of Virginia Beach in search of Bottlenose Dolphins.  As we neared Cape Henry and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins appeared around us. We estimated the pod size to be around 25 animals.  Susan told us the average group size near Virginia Beach is 20 animals. Near Wilmington and farther south in estuaries along the coast, Bottlenose Dolphins travel in smaller pods of 5-7 animals. We all agreed seeing wild dolphins never gets old. It is always a thrill.

Following the wild dolphin watch, the group visited the Aquarium’s rehabilitation and necropsy center. A group of dedicated, intelligent and inspired stranding technicians met us and the stranding coordinator Maggie walked us through the necropsy of a young harbor porpoise. A necropsy is an autopsy on animals. Maggie and her colleagues, including Jackie and Susan, had been up all night long dealing with a stranded pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps). Sadly, the stranding center began receiving calls on Wednesday about two small whales, literally up a creek. Well-intentioned and ill-informed citizens had pushed the two animals back out to sea early in the day. If instead, they had called the stranding response team, at least one of the animals probably could have been saved. As it was the pair, a mother and calf, returned to shallow water. The mother stranded and due to her poor body condition – she was emaciated and weak – she had to be euthanized. The calf was never seen again. The stranding team spent the night performing a necropsy and preserving tissue samples for later analysis by teams of researchers across the country. We know very little about marine mammal health and histopathology; when a marine mammal strands it provides an opportunity to gain a better understanding of their health and ours, both so closely tied to a healthy ocean.

Heather getting ready to observe a porpoise necropsyMaggie impressed us all when we realized that sometime between 3 a.m. and 4 p.m. (when we arrived) she had prepared a harbor porpoise to use for a teaching necropsy. She and her colleagues are truly heroes. How many people do you know who would stay up all night performing meticulous work on a dead animal, then provide a spectacular, enthusiastic and inspired presentation to a bunch of strangers? You can’t fake loving a job like Maggie’s! Maggie explained the harbor porpoise had stranded earlier in the year on Assateague Island and was preserved in the Aquarium’s freezer for later examination. She showed us marks on the animal’s rostrum (snout), which indicated that the cause of death was drowning due to entanglement in monofilament. Maggie showed us the muscles, heart and other organs so uniquely adapted for an air-breathing mammal to live in a watery world. Her enthusiasm was contagious and the group examined the animal, and its parts, and showered Maggie with smart and sincere questions.

Our experience at Virginia Aquarium provided a great foundation for questions to come about how we impact marine mammals, and the environment we share. Personally, I am grateful to the VASC staff for doing the hard work, asking the right questions and collaborating with all of the stakeholders – fishers, enforcement officials, and the public to promote marine stewardship. Elizabeth, Chris, Susan, Maggie, Jackie and crew: thank you for an interesting visit and keep up the great work!

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