Who’s saving the mammals

Imagine this. A phone call comes in the middle of a cold winter night in February. Someone is reporting a baby seal stranded on a beach in Cape May Point.  When the rescue team from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine (MMSC) arrives, they find a male seal, slightly emaciated and dehydrated. The little guy weighs in at only 37 pounds and measures 38 inches long. When admitted to the Brigantine Center, Mr. Seal could only eat 2-lbs of fish a day.

One month later, Mr. Seal is moved out of I.C.U., out of the holding tank and into the swimming pool to strengthen his muscles and endurance. On that day, Mr. Seal weighed in at 55 pounds. His release day came about a month later – April 18 of this year. He was tagged on his left rear flipper with a #2. The rescue team drove him up to his family home in Little Compton, RI where he was released weighing in at a whopping 83 pounds.

That’s pretty much what the Marine Mammal Stranding Center does under the direction of Bob Schoelkopf. And they are the only ones doing it here in New Jersey. MMSC is the only stranding center in the entire state. Bob, a former Navy man who served with the Marine Medical Corps, started the center in 1978 along with his equally dedicated wife Sheila Dean. Their goal then, as now, is to rescue, rehabilitate, and release stranded mammals and sea turtles.

And what a year it’s been. There have been 159 strandings for 2005 as of this writing. Most of which occurred here in Cape May County. The reason for Cape May being the site of so many strandings has to do with size. We have the largest body of water – the Atlantic Ocean combined with the Delaware Bay – which makes for a perfect landing area. 2005 has also been a record year for baby seal strandings. The reason?  Bob said it could be that the birthing rate is up and that this overpopulation could continue. At one point this past spring, MMSC had 29 baby Grey Seals. That’s the highest number on the east coast. Many animals had to share a pen, separated by a baby gate, until some seals could be released to make room. The seals are treated for everything from respiratory infections to shark attacks to sunburn due to molting.

There have been other stories in the news this year as well – a Beluga Whale visited the Delaware River in April. Who did the concerned call? MMSC of course. The center received a call one April morning about a whale swimming around the northern section of the Delaware River near Trenton. Identified as a Beluga Whale, experts were a bit puzzled. These whales generally hang out in a more arctic climate like Vancouver.

According to an account by Jay Pagel, MMSC’s senior field technician, the next morning he and Bob “trailered” a 19-foot Zodiac inflatable boat to Burlington, NJ where they met the NJ Marine Police. The Zodiac along with two other boats began a river search for the Beluga to evaluate its condition. Forty-five minutes into the search they found the Beluga 20 miles south of their location. During the night the Beluga had traveled 30 miles south and was heading north again, not exactly swimming in circles but pretty close to it. The search crew estimated that he appeared healthy and could maintain a speed of “over 8 mph for more than an hour, while swimming into the current.”

After seeing photos of the whale, Canadian researchers identified the Beluga as “Helis,” first spotted in the St Lawrence River in 1986 and thought, at the time, to be about 5 years old. It is unhealthy for Belugas, who can grow up to 15 feet long and weigh up to 3300 pounds, to swim in fresh water for longer than two weeks. Helis had been surfing the Delaware River for about a month swimming into the salt water bay only to return to the river again. MMSC followed his progress as did everyone else along the Delaware Bay throughout the spring, hoping Helis would find his way north. It looks as though this story has a happy ending. Helis was last spotted in mid-May by a fishing boat in the Delaware Bay heading north.

Had Helis not been healthy, MMSC would have had a huge problem. The center is not equipped nor funded to care for such a large mammal. In such instances, Bob must go out of state for help and, even then, finding a facility willing to take on that responsibility is an uphill task as they discovered in June of this year when a grampus or Risso’s Dolphin stranded on a remote section of Higbee Beach.

Firefighters from Town Bank Fire Department were called when the deep sea dolphin was discovered. They, in turn, called on the West Cape May Volunteer Fire Department to help in the assist.

This particular Risso’s Dolphin was nearly 10 feet long and weighed about 1200 pounds. Firefighters struggled for four hours to bring the dolphin ashore one-quarter of a mile to the Higbee Beach parking lot where they were met by MMSC’s large transport truck. In a not so happy ending, the Risso’s was euthanized by injection. Bob Schoelkopf and the center received heavy criticism from the firefighters for not attempting to save the grampus after they spent so much time trying to rescue it. According to Bob, however, a stranded grampus invariably is very ill. A subsequent necropsy showed the grampus had meningitis. There were other considerations – mainly the dolphin’s size. MMSC’s tank, for example, is 24 feet long. If the 10-foot grampus goes into the tank, there is very little room left for other mammals. Attempts were made to take the Risso’s dolphin elsewhere but there were no takers.

The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation in Long Island nearly went bankrupt last year in its attempt to save a grampus stranded in Delaware. It cost $407,000 to rehabilitate the mammal during its eight month recovery from a virus. MMSC’s entire budget is for the year is $400,000. Another problem is that the mammal, particularly a Risso’s, might have diseases which could infect the other mammals.

With all this talk around town about rescues and strandings, I decided to pay a visit to the Brigantine center and meet these mysterious people. I envisioned a facility similar to a hospital and just as big and spiraling.

In fact, I nearly drove right by it. The Marine Mammal Stranding Center is on Brigantine Blvd. on the left, just as you come into town. It sits back a bit from the parking lot but you’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the big red truck sitting in front of the building with the large white letters that read Marine Mammal Stranding Center on the back. Bob’s wife Sheila greeted me and suggested I wait outside until Bob returned.

When not rescuing mammals and sea turtles, MMSC makes money educating and lecturing the public about marine life. The staff, most of whom are volunteers, were waiting for a group of students to arrive. They busied themselves setting up the microscopes and slides. Flora, fauna, amoebae and eco-systems were topics of discussion on this cloudy morning.

Bob soon arrived and we began our tour of the facilities. The first thing he showed me was the rescue truck. Purchased from Kindle Ford for $55,000 with money made possible through a grant, the rescue truck is designed by Bob to handle most rescues. The owner of Kindle Ford, Bill Kindle donates the maintenance of all the vehicles at the center and has often assisted in providing air transport for a stranded animal.

The center’s main function is to try to save seals, sea turtles and smaller dolphins and assist with larger rescues. Bob converted the truck into an ambulance-like vehicle himself.

The back door of the truck opens down into a ramp and reveals an oblong railing running the length of the truck on the left side of the interior. A sling stretcher attaches to the rails to hold the mammals in place until they reach their destination.

After the mammal is picked up, the procedure is to bring the stranded animal to the center where it then goes into ICU, also designed by Bob. Each individual unit has a place for the mammal to flip around or whatever they do. The units have their own windows so that no contaminates are spread airborne to the other patients.

Bob has also built a kitchen so the staff can prepare food for the patients. The “preparation” comes mostly in the form of thawing the fish. When the mammals have recovered they go into a common area where they regain their strength. Finally, they are placed in the pool house so they can prepare for release.

The pool is filled with water from the bay, so it is murky in color. Hard as it is, the staff try to discourage the seals from having contact with humans. This is seen as an essential component in preparing the seals for survival once released.

Most of the stranded seals are yearlings (born the previous spring or summer) and are starving when they are brought to the center. They are weaned after one month so much of the staff’s energy is spent fattening them up. Once the seals are healthy and have a good thick blubber layer, their flippers are tagged and Bob then takes them up the coast – mostly to Cape Cod, Massachusetts – because their chances of survival are much better in colder waters and where there is little or no chance of human contact.

There are many happy endings which you can read about in MMSC’s newsletter The Blowhole but one of the staff member told me about the story of Miss Wildwood Crest, aka #34. She was stranded at Wildwood Crest beach, Feb 9 of this year and suffered from a mild respiratory infection. All the stranded seals have parasites and most have respiratory problems. Miss Crest also had abrasions on her flippers and a mucous in her eyes. She weighed 52 lbs. By the time of her release date Feb. 22, she weighed 58 lbs and was feeling just ducky. No weight watchers for this gal – 12 lbs of fish a day. Miss Crest was released at Great Bay, NJ.

I, myself, want to adopt everyone of the sad-eyed faces I see in the photos and newsletter. I was a little disappointed that there were no patients for me to visit that day. July and August are sea turtle season. Seal season starts in the fall. Now is the time when Bob and the center’s small staff and loyal volunteers regroup and repair. Bob’s project for the day was to re-grout the ICU.

The center will be looking for a new home in five years when its lease with the city of Brigantine expires. The city has notified MMSC that they will not be renewing the lease. Bob’s doesn’t really know what will happen to the stranding center then. Currently MMSC runs with a permit and authorization from the state and federal governments. All funding comes through donations, grants and membership and fund raising.

One option, said Bob, is that the state could take over operation of MMSC. In that case, he said, the budget would most likely double.  

Until then, Bob, Sheila and the crew will be at the helm, 24-hours a day, 7-days a week on the look out for those who can’t look out for themselves like Mr. Loggerhead.  Mr. Loggerhead is a mature sea turtle found in Cape May a few weeks back. Weighing approximately 350lbs, 42.5 inches, he was caught in a scallop dredge net.  At first, he was reported as dead. After the initial call by the boat’s captain, the crew took a closer look and realized Mr. Loggerhead was just stunned and very much still alive. After Marine Mammal Stranding Technicians responded and evaluated him he was cleared for release with the help of the US Coast Guard. He was taken by the Coast Guard several miles off shore and successfully released.

Don’t forget, you can help. MMSC offers lots of ways. Contact Sheila for the center’s wish list at 609-266-0538. The wish list currently includes Pedialyte, (unflavored please) for seal pups and gift cards for Staples, Home Depot and Lowes.

Volunteers are always needed to help fund raise. Stranding volunteers are needed in Cape May County -18 or older please. And you can adopt a seal. Check out their website:


Seals photographs courtesy of MMSC