|The Marine Animal Rescue Program at the National Aquarium in Baltimore
An unusual animal at the National Aquarium in Baltimore draws visitors to the “Wings in the Water” exhibit. Calypso, a sea turtle in the exhibit, swims with only three flippers. She was rescued by the Marine Animal Rescue Program, but her front left flipper was amputated because of an infection.
Many marine animals like Calypso need the help of humans to survive after becoming stranded on beaches. The Marine Animal Rescue Program was created over 10 years ago at the Aquarium to respond to, rescue and rehabilitate these animals, according to Glenn Page, Director of Conservation.
Cindi Perry, a program technician, said, “The program was created to respond to stranded marine mammals and sea turtles in the mid-Atlantic region.”
There are two purposes of the program, according to Page. It aims to “provide critical care for marine mammals and sea turtles; and to communicate messages on the health of the bay, coastal waters and off-shore waters,” he said.
The program covers the shores from Virginia to Delaware, including all of Maryland’s shore. The program also assists animals in the Carolinas, New Jersey and Maine.
About 10 professionals and 80 volunteers on the team assist 30 to 50 animals each year, according to Page. He said the number of animals is not a lot compared to programs in other areas, but the Aquarium’s program encounters a higher variety of animals. The Aquarium helps animals such as seals, sea lions, bottlenose dolphins and other tropical and arctic animals.
When an animal is found stranded on a beach, authorities will call the Aquarium and a team from the program might be sent to assess the situation. Page said this process is similar to human care. The animals must be stabilized for transport and may require immediate care.
The Coast Guard, Navy and Baltimore City police assist in the transport of animals to the Aquarium for rehabilitation. Animals could be transported either by land or air. Page stressed that everyone involved must take extreme caution because no one knows how sick the animal is or if it has a disease that could affect humans.
“Every animal that comes ashore is an instant candidate for rehabilitation,” Page said. “Space in the Aquarium equates to how many beds are available in a hospital.”
He said the Aquarium can keep two or three large animals at one time, four or five seals and 10 turtles. If the hospital pool should reach capacity, the Aquarium will network with another facility to care for the animals. All animals usually stay at the Aquarium for the full rehabilitation time, anywhere from two weeks to six months, according to Page.
Thirty-five animals have been rescued and released successfully through the program.
“Any of our releases could be counted as a great success story,” Perry said. “One of my favorites is of a harbor seal that was released off Long Island in 2001. This particular case was one that I was able to follow from beginning to end, being very active in its rehabilitation and also being a part of the release team. It was a great feeling, letting the seal out of the carrier onto the beach and watching as the animal entered the water and swam through the surf.”
If animals are unable to be released due to injuries or illness, they are placed in the Aquarium’s collection, like Calypso was. After her amputation, Calypso was placed in the “Wings in the Water” exhibit in August 2002.
When a stranded animal arrives at the Aquarium, team members attempt to determine what caused the stranding. Possibilities include infections, like Calypso’s, or dehydration. Some animals may have to be euthanized, but Page assures the process is very humane and ends the suffering of animals.
Animals that complete the rehabilitation process are given a satellite tag before being released. Page said these tags allow the team to track animals and learn more about their behaviors.
“The tags seem unobtrusive and are designed to fall off the animal after the battery dies,” he said.
During rehabilitation, animals are given numbers instead of names to maintain a professional distance. They are named after being released and given a tag.
“This allows the public to connect to the animal, and the animal becomes an ambassador to schools, the aquarium and the public on how oceans are doing,” Page said. “Information from the tag is vital to protect animals.”
To learn what you can do to prevent the stranding of animals, call the Aquarium’s Conservation Department at (410) 659-4274 or visit the Aquarium’s Web site.