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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!

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.