Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Marine Science

Last weekend, our family visited my cousin Susan, who lives and works in Virginia Beach. Susan is the Stranding Response Coordinator & Senior Scientist at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. She was an awesome host and gave us a great behind the scenes tour of the Aquarium as well as the Stranding Response & Rehabilitation Center. The behind the scenes tour included up close and personal time with the seals, a spotted eagle ray feeding, a behind the wall komodo dragon living quarters tour, and seeing stranded sea turtles being rehabilitated.

Susan and her coworkers will get calls when there are marine mammal and sea turtle standings in the Mid-Atlantic region, although she has also traveled to further east coast spots when her assistance is required with a major whale stranding. More often than not, a whale that has stranded itself or washed up on shore has to be put down if it hasn’t already died and that’s when the real work begins - the neocropsy (animal autopsy) right there on the beach. Waist deep in whale blubber, they will remove the vital organs and record everything for science…and to determine why the whale got stranded in the first place. Susan was once featured on the Discovery Channel in a show about solving the mystery of local Virginia Beach area dolphin deaths. I’ve seen pictures of Susan and her coworkers doing a neocropsy on a large Sperm Whale on a shoal 1 mile off Cape Lookout, NC. They had to time their work at low tide and make quick work of it before high tide set in (leaving the remains for the sharks and birds). She’s also done a lot of work on the Outer Banks of NC.

The animals who do survive sometimes get taken to the local Stranding Response and Rehabilitation Center to get treated, rehabbed, then released back into the ocean when they are well enough to be on their own again. Some of these released animals will get tagged with GPS monitors so the scientists can track their movements and paths around the ocean. Check out this web site where you can track some of these sea turtles that get tagged. Real fascinating stuff.

These amazing sea animals that get stranded, die, or end up in the Standing Center are victims of natural causes….or sadly because of boat strikes, fishing nets, and ingesting garbage/plastics. Whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and seals are arguably the most beautiful and majestic sea animals on this earth and we’re always admiring their grace in the water. So its always a sad occasion and incredibly ironic when one ends up the beach dying because of man made dangers. At the Stranding Response Center, we saw one loggerhead turtle that had been struck by a boat with a split shell and split skull. It was deeply medicated and resting and Susan talked in terms of “if” it makes it. There was another very large loggerhead over 300 lbs that had one of its flippers amputated because it got caught in a net and lost all circulation. If it had not been found, it would have died. Yet another loggerhead was recovering from pneumonia and set to be released within a couple of weeks. We also got to see a recovering baby Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle (which is fairly rare). As we were leaving, Susan’s coworkers were bringing in a dead leatherback sea turtle for a neocropsy that had been found that morning.

The work that Susan and her coworkers do is incredible. A lot of research is done on stranded marine mammals and sea turtles. This leads to educating the public about these magnificent animals and their conservation needs. Of course, all this great work and science relies on grant money and donations. Please be sure to support your local marine science center (and stranding & rehab center if they have one). If you are in the Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Tidewater area, be sure to visit the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center.

Marine Science from WaterTurtle Productions on Vimeo.

My cuz, Susan, with one of the satellite tracking devices they attach to released sea turtles.

The loggerhead turtle with the amputated flipper. He was moving around pretty good.

Kemp's Ridley sea turtle

The loggerhead turtle with pneumonia....to be released within a couple of weeks.

The boat strike victim - lets hope he makes it.

Spotted Eagle Ray feeding time

The kids checking out the Komodo Dragon...or perhaps its the other way around.

Susan's friend feeding the fish and cleaning the aquarium.

We had incredible weather and benefited from the milder summer temps that we got in between the big heat waves. Combine that with a nice onshore southeasterly breeze and you couldn’t ask for a more picture perfect beach day. Of course, the beach weekend wasn’t complete without some time on the water. Susan lives on the north end of Virginia Beach near Cape Henry away from the crowds and 1 block from the beach. I was able to sneak in some SUP surfing both Saturday and Sunday mornings.

I would roll out of bed and carry my board/paddle to the beach. On Saturday, I was on the water and catching waist to chest high right handers before 7am before heading to the Aquarium. Sunday morning, the waves were smaller in the knee to waist high range. The waves on the north end would pitch up steep but then not yet break for a while allowing some nice rides…and when they did break, it was that nice soft crumbly off the top kind of break. I had fairly clean conditions before the weekend’s forecasted late morning and afternoon southeasterly breeze would pick up.

And the coolest part - I was surrounded by 8-10 dolphin both days...some were just babies. There were surfers within a hundred yards of me in both directions and these dolphin would hang out with me the entire time I was out there both mornings and just about completely ignored the other surfers. They would slap their tails, play with each other, jump around, surf the waves, jump over the waves...it was wild. They seemed fascinated with the guy who was standing up...and I enjoyed the company. Susan tells me that many of the dolphin who hang out at Virginia Beach in the summer actually hang out in the Outer Banks in the winter.

All the following pictures were taken on Sunday morning by my lovely bride.


Anonymous said...

Did she mention how the NAVY's sonar affects the inner ears of whales and dolphins?

Your kids are getting a really good education travelling with you to these SUP spots!

Waterturtle said...

She has mentioned to me how the sonar affects them.