Riverhead Foundation Comes to the Aid of Marine Animals

January 28, 2007 at 9:48 pm Leave a comment

ANIMAL NY3597-07 blinks her big black eyes while lounging on her belly on a dry ledge in a lidless tank. Her fuzzy, bluish-gray fur is the distinct coat of a hooded seal less than a year old, and she appears soft enough to cuddle. But this is not a petting zoo; the pair of thick leather gloves hanging nearby is a reminder of that.

It is instead the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, the only organization in New York authorized to rescue and rehabilitate seals, sea turtles, porpoises, whales and — as was well documented this month — dolphins. Home base is a series of rooms at the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium on Main Street.

At the heart of it is a warehouselike room fitted with 20 tanks, where distressed marine mammals that have been rescued struggle for life. Or, in the case of the hooded seal, recuperate quietly after swallowing a half-dozen rocks.

Animals brought to the foundation are meant to be treated and released. “We do everything we can to not interact with them,” said Becky Scott, a biologist who has worked at the foundation for two years. To remain emotionally unattached, the staff identifies its charges according to the order in which they are rescued. The hooded seal, for instance, was the 3,597th marine mammal it had rescued or recovered in New York. The numbers after the dash represent the year it was taken in.

But there is a book on display in the aquarium with biographies of rescued animals like Squirt, a harbor seal, and Horton, a Kemp’s ridley turtle. “The animals are named when they are deemed releasable as part of our adoption program,” Ms. Scott said.

As extensive as its programs are, the foundation is looking for improved facilities. The wish list includes an operating room (two area veterinarians currently volunteer their facilities for surgeries) and an enclosure for the 42,000-gallon outdoor dolphin tank.

Riverhead Foundation rescuers respond to an average of 30 whale and dolphin strandings each year, although seal and turtle rescues are most common. The foundation has the largest stranding center on the East Coast, said its president, Chuck Bowman.

This month staff biologists and trained volunteers led the largest dolphin rescue effort in the foundation’s 10-year history. Working with rescuers from across the country, they steered 8 of an estimated 20 common dolphins trapped in shallow regions of Noyack Creek into the safety of deeper waters.

Last Sunday one of the 12 dolphins that did not survive was being prepared for necropsy in a small outbuilding. Dr. Cheryl Cross, a veterinary pathologist from the University of Tennessee, and Dr. Janet Whaley, the national stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, planned to take samples of the organs to be tested for bacteria, viruses, contaminants and infectious diseases. A marine mammal biologist from the Smithsonian Institution was also on hand to analyze the dolphin’s life.

“We’re really proud of Riverhead,” Dr. Whaley said. “It was a stressful week for them, but they are very professional.”

The foundation has come a long way, said its director and senior biologist, Robert DiGiovanni, who was a founding volunteer. Mr. DiGiovanni and others stepped in to care for the rescued animals when the Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation, a rescue group based at the aquarium, went bankrupt in 1996.

“That was a time when we scraped together gas money to do what we needed to do,” he said, noting that Mr. Bowman’s personal truck once served as the emergency transport vehicle. Mr. Bowman recalled the oil stains and stench left behind by one stranded whale.

While conservation is their common goal, Mr. DiGiovanni said scientific discovery is what motivates the foundation’s six paid staff members and dozens of volunteers. Noting their role in the recent dolphin rescues and the research of the stranding, he said, “We’re on the forefront.”

Published: January 28, 2007

NEW YORK TIMES 

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