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Greys’ Anatomy

Our Town downtown

April 30, 2007

The drama never ends at the ER for stranded seals, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles, and yes, the occasional whale

“One, two, three!”
Two women scoop up an angry baby grey seal in what looks like an oversized pool cleaning net. The one wearing heavy duty welding gloves wrestles it down, straddles its back and pushes down hard on its head. The other, in steel mesh gloves, forces its mouth open and shoves one dead fish after another down its throat while the seal makes frantic guttural noises.
I’m no expert, but this little seal looks pissed.
It’s “not very eager to take dead fish,” the Foundation’s director and senior biologist, Robert DiGiovanni Jr., explains. In the wild, seals like their fish alive. They’re also not partial to being force fed.
“If the doctor doesn’t tell you what he’s doing,” he says, “it’s very stressful.”
Making matters worse, this little one is recovering from a broken jaw. But then it’s done, and “One, two, three!” the seal has been scooped back into the net and hoisted into its tank. And then “One, two, three!” another seal is pinned.
It’s feeding time. This struggle happens four times a day in a quarantine room at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, housed in the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium at the far Eastern tip of Long Island. The giant warehouse-sized space is off-limits the public, so that the animals won’t get accustomed to people and start associating them with food.
The wrestling matches necessary to get the seals to eat, the growling and flopping around, are actually good signs; these animals are still wild.
In the mid-90’s, about 50 percent of the stranded animals that came to the Foundation survived to be released back into the water. Today, that number is up around 70 percent.
Ten years ago, they were a three-person, $300,000 a year operation; now they’ve got eight full-time staff, 125 volunteers and an $800,000 annual budget, as well as more tanks, a couple dedicated rescue trucks, a radiograph machine, a necropsy room, an in-house lab where they can do blood tests at 3 a.m. in an emergency. They go through 350 pounds of fish every day.
But they’ve also got more animals coming in, and they’re not sure why. “As we get bigger, we’re having more occurrences that are unusual,” says DiGiovanni. The whale that beached itself in the Gowanus last week was just another example of an odd incident. “The last few years, people have been seeing [seals] more often. They might be out molting, sunning themselves.”
The Foundation has started putting some of their resources, which come in the form of state grants and private donations (including tin cans of loose change collected by school kids) toward figuring out why they’re still at maximum capacity. They’re currently caring for four sea turtles, a harbor porpoise and 23 seals, when the season for stranded seals should be winding up.
It might be related to the pack ice breaking up early in Canada. Then again, it might not.
To figure that out, the Foundation has started satellite tagging certain animals so they can follow them once they’ve been released. They’re also doing aerial, shipboard and land-based surveys to establish baseline populations of sea turtles and whales, which are less commonly seen and therefore less fully understood.
“They’re out there, we just don’t see them on a regular basis,” DiGiovanni says of the whales off the south shore of Long Island. “If things change in their environment, we could end up seeing them.”
Preparation is key, because there is no way of predicting incidents like the January dolphin stranding off the eastern coast of Long Island or the beached whale in the Gowanus.
As the Foundation finds out more about the specific behavior of different species, they’re using something like 20 percent of their budget to make that knowledge public.
“Each species has a little different behavior,” he says. For instance, it’s normal for seals to “haul out” on land to rest, but a beached whale or dolphin is in trouble. By teaching the public about the specific behaviors of different species, the Foundation is creating an educated network that will act as its eyes and ears.
DiGiovanni points to a mural on the wall of different seals. “This isn’t a dead seal,” he motions to a beached mother. “This seal isn’t crying,” he says of one with runny eyes. “This one doesn’t have a bullet hole in its head – that’s its ear.”