Sunday, May 8, 2011

Stranded in the Keys

16 short-finned pilot whales stranded in the Florida Keys on May 5th.
While I can assure that this was not due to partying on Cinqo de Mayo, I'm actually not going to discuss speculation on why this whale pod washed ashore. There are countless sources you can easily access online with better descriptions and answers to your questions than what I can spin together in one afternoon online. Even with my personal interactions on scene with stranded dolphins and sea turtles, both alive and dead, I would research for days or weeks prior to creating a serious article on the potential causes and solutions to such events.
Here is a link to get you started:

I will give a bit of background for you though -
A stranding refers to the presence on the beach of a marine animal in distress. This means a sea turtle coming up during nesting season is not a stranded animal. She is supposed to be on the beach digging her nest and laying her eggs. If something happens so the turtle is unable to return to the water (i.e. she gets trapped on the shore by furniture or trash) then she is now in distress and stranding protocol will be followed. A stranded animal should not be simply pushed back to shore by concerned citizens on the beach. Individuals who have been properly trained by authorized organizations will know how to asses an animal and get the right people on scene so the creature is given the best chance possible for survival. Bear in mind, marine animals are not meant to be on shore for long if at all, and the sheer weight of their bodies not supported by saltwater can cause serious damage to internal organs. So don't go rolling Flipper down the beach and back into the water, Ok?

I DO want to take the time to talk about how rescuers actually work in these bizarre situations in often extreme circumstances.
I have been fortunate enough to have trained and worked in the field with sea turtle strandings all over Florida, but also with dolphin strandings and even marine mammal rehabilitation with the Marine Animal Rescue Society (MARS) and Mote Marine Labs. So I have been through the rigorous workshops on properly assessing and transporting these massive creatures. And yes, it really is as cool as it sounds.

I first heard about this newest stranding via e-mail; I'm still on the MARS network, although I am rarely available to volunteer these days. MARS handles all marine mammal strandings in the southeast portion of Florida, and they operate out of Biscayne Bay. This stranding took place in the Florida Keys and within hours the local stranding unit with the Marine Mammal Conservancy was on scene and coordination with other organizations had begun. They worked with MARS, NOAA, FWC, and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) to get these animals monitored, assessed, and transported. This was splashed all over the news reels that aquaholics and eco-junkies follow, then vanished from much of the media. Most of those blips simply stated the event, and say the standard tag line "the cause of the stranding is unknown".
Uh, YEAH, that's the big debate these days. So let's move on...

The above organizations send an all-call to trained volunteers to show up and help out. So don't ever think that simply showing up is enough to help. You need to sign up in advance and learn about what to do with your group in order to be helpful. A bunch of people standing around not knowing what is going on are no help at all. Trust me on this one from personal experience. You can help with things like calling the proper authorities and crowd control. In Florida, this is Fish & Wildlife (FWC) at 1-888-404-FWCC. Every state has a Fish & Wildlife, so next time you go to a park on Earth Day and they have a booth, take the sticker or a flyer and keep it in your glove box so you have the number when you hit the beach or are out on a boat! If you are out often with junkies like me, then you will have the number memorized and on your cell phone anyway.

Once you are trained in these weekend workshops and get your official volunteer t-shirt (wear it with pride everywhere, not just while working) you get called in at the worst possible times to help out. The lists of volunteers are long, but the list of people who ACTUALLY show up is usually very short, so you WILL get to work! Be prepared to lose sleep, get dirty and stinky, possibly bruised, and definitely sore. Be prepared to do or touch some really gross things as these animals may have injuries and there is no time or space for squeamishness. Eat a granola bar, but not McD's, on your way to the stranding. You may not eat for hours, but you might vomit. Listen to your staff and experienced leaders. I don't care how awesome you were in the workshop, the real animal is super heavy and often scared. The giant inflatable pool whale that you transported in the workshop is NOTHING like the live action sequence. Again, trust me.
Also be prepared to fell AWESOME about yourself later. Whether the animals you assist do well or don't survive - you have helped and interacted with an amazing animal and some amazingly dedicated people. The outfits work on shoestring budgets and even "high ranking" staff make poverty level wages and usually no benefits. Bring donuts when you come in later to help with the rehabilitation of the surviving animals. Oh yeah, you can't just help out on the beach and bail. The personal attachment you might get with a stranded animal is perfectly normal and try to spend some time helping them again later.
Eons ago, at Mote, I was literally dropped into a tank with a pygmy sperm whale who had been in rehab for months. It was a rush no drugs can deliver, and even when they told me, "if she starts breaching, we have to get you out of the water - but don't panic" I was thrilled to able to spend time with "Ami". She had stranded in Miami with her mother "Mia" who did not survive. Ami stayed at Mote, but did not survive through to release. She died October 12nd, 2002 after nearly 2 years at the facility; she had an intestinal disorder. Ami survived longer in captivity than any pygmy sperm whale before. The knowledge gained and the hearts touched will continue to impact this world long after Ami is out of the news. Randy Puckett actually sculpted Ami. That work of art is pictured below. You can learn more about Ami's story here:

The point to this whole segment is that participating in an animal stranding is the definition of being overworked and under-appreciated while still providing a sense of accomplishment. It is the ultimate volunteer opportunity and everyone who expresses a sincere care for the oceans and its life should take part in a stranding at some point in their lives. Getting to be a part of the rehabilitation process and (gasp!) even the release of a stranded animal is perhaps the greatest bond one can obtain with the oceans. After watching your charge swim away, you will feel permanently connected to the waters blanketing this planet.

Have a Happy Mother's Day and try to remember that the feelings and impressions mentioned above are also very much an everyday part of being a Mom. She nurtures, comforts, rescues, protects, and eventually lets go. A deep connection with your offspring is something that cannot be reproduced, only imitated.

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