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On the Road Again!

August 12, 2011

We left Virginia Beach around 8:30 a.m. and headed over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel to our next destination, the National Aquarium at Baltimore. During the ride, we heard several “expert topic” reports and enjoyed some journaling time on the bus. Along the way we stopped for lunch at a Wendy’s in Maryland, and were quite surprised when the cashier came and told us quietly that we had to leave; a fire had broken out in the kitchen! We watched the fire truck pull up and were impressed by how quickly the small grease fire was extinguished.

When we arrived at the National Aquarium we were greeted by Nancy Hotchkiss, Vice President of Visitor and Guest Experiences. Using the materials she shares with their teen volunteer, Nancy gave us an excellent introduction to climate change. We then had a chance to explore the aquarium before heading to dinner at Amici’s in the Little Italy section of Baltimore. We look forward to spending our morning at the aquarium before getting back on the bus for the drive to Mystic!

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!

Raleigh to Virginia Beach

August 12, 2011

By Peggy Sloan

All 16 cohorts arrived at Prairie Ridge Ecostation on time and ready to hit the road – with obvious enthusiasm. I was immediately impressed. Kudos to Heather, who baked cookies for the trip, and to Courtney who packed craft materials. Never underestimate the value of traveling with environmental educators; you’re not likely to be bored or hungry! Within an hour of leaving Raleigh the bus blew a tire. Our driver, Martha, expertly maneuvered the bus off of busy Highway 64.   Thanks to efficient Museum staff support and a friendly patrol officer we were back on the road before too long. Despite the unexpected delay, we arrived at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head in time for lunch. Pier staff treated us to the best view on the beach with lunch on the upper level. During lunch we saw our first marine mammals: Bottlenose Dolphins swimming a few hundred yards off the pier. Fed, inspired, and ready for more, we set off for the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center.

Susan Barco, Virginia Aquarium’s Research Coordinator, provided an overview of the natural history, conservation status, and threats to Virginia’s marine mammals. Susan’s research on Spectra, a brand of fishing line, left an impact on us and posed a challenge for the group to provide outreach to the recreational fishing community. Spectra is a high-performance fishing twine gaining popularity among fishers. Unfortunately all of the qualities that make this product good for fishing make it equally bad news for marine mammals. Spectra cannot be broken, does not break down in sunlight and is comprised of “braids” rather than a single strand. This braided design, along with the material’s strength, act as a “micro-saw” cutting into anything entangled in the twine. In addition, Spectra is not recyclable. Recently Susan and her team had to euthanize a young dolphin which had become entangled in Spectra. The dolphin’s dorsal fin was severed and its tail fluke was nearly severed.

As we all know, word of mouth is the best form of advertising. Tell your fishing friends and family to avoid Spectra, and learn how you might be able to influence the development and distribution of similar products.

Virginia Aquarium

August 12, 2011

We had a great day at the Virginia Aquarium filled with a seal encounter, a tour of the Aquarium, a cruise to watch wild dolphins, and participation in a necropsy of a Harbor Porpoise. We are so lucky to have a chance to meet staff from the Aquarium and learn about how they help the public understand marine mammals. More later. We are heading to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and on to Baltimore.

Starting with a bang!

August 11, 2011

Our trip started with a bang – literally! Our front right tire blew out on Highway 64 near Zebulon, but, thanks to Martha’s driving skills, no one was hurt and we were able to gently pull off the road. With help from the Zebulon Police and Museum staff back in Raleigh, we tracked down a service that could bring a new tire and make the change right there, on the side of the road. Not wanting to waste a moment, we spent this two-hour delay working on our journals and making UV bead bracelets. The beads in our new bracelets change color when exposed to UV light and are a great reminder to wear sunscreen.

We got back on the road and headed to Jennette’s Pier, a new facility run by the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island. This amazing LEED-certified pier has wind turbines and uses reclaimed water in its toilets. The pier provides the public with easy access to fishing or walking out to see what others have caught. We enjoyed meeting staff from the aquarium and made the most of our brief visit to walk around outside.

Our next destination was the Virginia Aquarium and Science Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia. We met researcher Susan Barco, who studies marine mammal strandings. We learned that stranding data can help us learn about the biodiversity of an area, give us basic natural history information about the animals and provide a glimpse of the temporal behavior of some of the animals. In Virginia, Bottlenose Dolphins are only found during part of the year (April through November) and the stranding data help us understand what they are doing during their time here.

Susan also discussed some of the Aquarium’s projects that have focused on marine mammals. Researchers were interested in whether dolphins that get caught in fishing gear are healthy or unhealthy, so they developed a way to measure the health of these entangled animals. The study found that, in many cases, mammals that become entangled are healthy. In another project, Susan and her colleagues studied a new type of stronger, finer fishing line called “Spectra.” Results from the study showed that marine mammals that were entangled in this new fishing line suffered more significant cuts compared to animals that were entangled in traditional monofilament line. Susan has also helped develop a catalog, which allows photo identification of dolphins based on the unique characteristics of their dorsal fins. This catalog helps researchers track individual dolphin movements over time.

After this long day it was a delight to arrive at our hotel, unpack the bus and get some sleep.  We look forward to what Thursday will hold!

Looking forward to our upcoming adventure!

August 9, 2011

Organizing health forms, collecting journaling materials, charging camera batteries, confirming passwords for posting pictures, picking up the bus keys…all tasks that need to been done before we start our Marine Mammal Institute tomorrow. The flurry of last minute emails from participants indicates that we are all in the same boat, trying to make certain that we can  thoroughly engage in this trip by knowing that everything has been taken care of at work.

There is also a palpable sense of excitement as we anticipate learning about marine mammals, visiting aquariums, and gaining an understanding of climate change. Choosing what to pack highlights the diversity of the trip – sunscreen for the wild dolphin research afternoon, a windbreaker for the whale watch at Stellwagon Bank, warm socks for the Beluga encounter, and comfortable shoes for the explorations of aquariums and museums up and down the East Coast.

Look for the many voices of the participants on this adventure. We hope to share our experience via this blog, and welcome your questions as the trip progresses.

Boston to D.C.

August 13, 2010

As our whirlwind of travel comes to an end I am feeling optimistic about the institute outcome. In the company of 18 enthusiastic, motivated and competent educators I can envision the positive change they might create communicating solutions to ocean issues. On Tuesday morning, while still in Boston, John Anderson with New England Aquarium  talked with the group about framing climate change conversations. The timing of this topic fit perfectly into our work and helped place information from the week into relevant context for communication. We also benefited from exposure to outreach activities and new information about Right whales. Seeing humpback and fin whales under a clear blue sky on calm seas capped the New England experience and inspired individuals to do what they can to make sure future generations might know the thrill of being in the company of whales.

Washington D.C. introduced us to new levels of technology through the Smithsonian’s Sant Ocean Hall and the Koshland Museum. We also wrapped up the institute with a brainstorming session to summarize our experiences and develop an outline for our marine mammal/climate story. Carrie McDougall, our NOAA grant officer, joined us for our Smithsonian tour (thank you Catherine!) and follow-up discussion. Her insight and expertise locating resources and evaluating project effectiveness was a huge bonus. 

I’m looking forward to the next phase of our adventure – spreading the word, sharing the passion, and interacting with each of our participants on their home turf as we work together to create a sustainable future.

Another day in paradise?

August 12, 2010

I’m not sure I can explain this whole trip succinctly, but I can try!  We’re on day 9 today in DC.  Heading to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the Sant Ocean Hall by Metro today.  The exhibits in the newly renovated ocean hall were developed using the Ocean Literacy standards — so it will be interesting to read the text and talk to the exhibits curator and an educator.  Then we’ll go to the Koshland Science Museum (which I’ve never visited).  We will have some free time afterwards and will have a chance to visit other museums or just walk along the Mall.

We head home in the morning.  I’m happy to be heading home to sleep in my own bed and to catch up with the husband and cats and what they’ve been doing, but it will be sad to depart from this group of wonderful educators that I have come to know, love, and respect during this incredible adventure!  We gelled as a group almost immediately and by changing up bus seats daily, I have gotten to know several people very well.

We all want to continue this feeling of camaraderie and solidarity for a long time.  I mean, with how many people do you ever get to share  the touch of a beluga’s melon, or the thrill of watching humpback whale flukes disappearing below the ocean’s surface, or the goose bumps you get while watching bottlenose dolphins and harbor seals going through a training session???!!!

Today will be another busy day, and the journey has been quite eventful.

Coming to the Tail-end…

August 11, 2010

What an amazing trip it has been. We arrived in our nation’s capital this evening after a long drive from Boston, MA. At this point in our travels, I don’t think there is anyone in our group that doesn’t feel an intense responsibility to communicate the issue of climate change and the effects on marine mammals. From dolphin watches, necropsies, aquarium tours, and a up-close and personal experience with a beluga, I know I am personally feeling very grateful for this experience.

Our time in Boston was one of the most poignant for me. Our visit to the New England Aquarium was wonderful, and being involved in the fur seal training session presentation was incredible. What a neat animal that is really beginning to be affected by the changes in our climate! The fur seal trainers were wonderful and very willing to share their love and passion with us, and the Education staff we met were so helpful and accommodating! Thank you John, Kara, and Lindsey and the rest of the staff for sharing your work with us.

The following day was our whale watch cruise. The day was perfect, sunny & warm with excellent water conditions! Upon boarding a large catamaran with 325 other excited humans, we cruised out to Stellwagen Banks and experienced both fin whales and humpback whales in the wild. When that first fin whale came to the surface to take a breath I was surprised at the emotion I felt! I watched an amazing animal do what they are meant to do in the wild and with every show of the fluke and breath of air, I felt tears in my eyes. It makes you feel hope, the fight is not over, and that there are 18 people with me willing to do what they can to make a difference.

Our evening ended with dinner at Austin Grill and a bit of karaoke. 🙂 Go Dacia, Shelley, and Beth!

We all are excited to explore DC tomorrow and continue our adventure together. Hard to believe our 10 days with MMI is almost over, but fortunately the true journey for us to facilitate change with our oceans has just begun.

Dolphins and Belugas and Whales… OH my!

August 10, 2010

Well, it seems like we are travelling around the country like Aquarium ROCK STARS… hitting all the major cities… Virginia Beach, Baltimore, Mystic and BOSTON… just to end our tour in the Nation’s Capital… DC baby! Our Dolphin watching boat adventure in Virginia Beach and working behind the scenes with the Dolphins in Baltimore were like the OPENING act for this troop of environmental ROCKERS. In Mystic, getting in the water with BELUGA whales and even reaching in their mouths had the ones who were watching, waving and shouting from the MOSH pit! As an encore, we rocked and rolled out to the Shellwagen Banks National Marine Sanctuary and played one of our greatest hits…. “I’m a Whale Watcher.” I must admit that some of those in attendance today sunk to new depths and really showed their tails…but, such is the life of a SEA STAR!