Safe and Sound

At the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, seals, turtles and other sea creatures get a second chance.

Intern Shannon Russello releases a healthy 50-pound harbor seal into an inlet on Great Bay. This creature was discovered on Point Pleasant Beach with a shark bite, lacerations and tapeworm.
Photos by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

At the end of Great Bay Boulevard in Tuckerton, two staff members from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center lift a medium-sized dog carrier out of a Ford pickup and place it on a wheeled cart. As they roll the crate down to a secluded beach on Great Bay’s inlet, its cargo thrashes about and paws at the door. At the water’s edge, Shannon Russello, an intern from Cape May County, opens the door and a small head pokes out to eyeball its flipperless companions.

After a minute or two of evaluating its surroundings, the 50-pound freckled-brown harbor seal flops out onto the sand and, without hesitation, dives into the water, looking back at the beach one last time before disappearing into the bay. “Well, she’s headed the wrong way right now, but once she turns around, it will take her about a half hour to reach the others,” explains Bob Schoelkopf, the center’s 64-year-old founder, referring to a colony of about 100 seals at a nearby island.

These fleeting moments are what Schoelkopf and his staff work tirelessly for year-round. “Watching her being released is indescribable,” says Russello, who is participating in her first animal release. “It’s nice to know you’re making a difference.” The rehabilitated seal, discovered by beachgoers on Point Pleasant Beach in early January, had suffered a shark bite to her left shoulder, several minor lacerations to her belly and flippers and severe tapeworm. After almost a month of showing sufficient weight gain (Schoelkopf likes to see young harbor seals reach about 50 pounds) and positive bloodwork, she became the center’s first seal release of 2011.

If it’s anything like last year, she won’t be the last, Schoelkopf says. “2011 has been a light season so far, only six seals picked up. But I don’t want to jinx myself. Last year, we treated 107 seals, about 40 harbor seals like this one. By this time last year, we already had 20 in.”

Since its founding in 1978, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine has treated nearly 3,800 marine mammals and sea turtles, from grey seals to Kemp’s ridley turtles. Before opening the center, Schoelkopf managed dolphin shows on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier.

“I became very disenchanted with animals being in captivity, that they could never be in the wild again, so I decided to start my own facility,” he says. In 1978, he applied for federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act funds to get him up and running. “That money allowed us to hire students from Stockton College with a marine background,” he says. “We actually paid them as they went to school and they worked on strandings, too.”

Marine mammals and sea turtles strand for a multitude of reasons, but in New Jersey, the most common causes are shark bites, propeller cuts or fractures, fishing-gear entanglements, internal respiratory infections, parasites and ear infections. When one is discovered along the state’s 1,800 miles of coastline and tributaries, the center calls a trained volunteer in the area. The volunteer visually examines the animal, taking note of its weight, injuries (if any) and breathing pattern. If the animal needs assistance, Schoelkopf dispatches one of the center’s three stranding technicians while the volunteer remains on site to keep the public at least 50 feet away. If it is a seal, which make up about 75 percent of the center’s intake, the stranding technician will catch it with a special hoop net and place it in a dog crate for the ride back to the center.

At the center, treatment, given over a period of days or weeks, varies depending on the illness or injury. Usually, seals are administered vitamins and antibiotics for secondary infections like pneumonia, and wormed for parasites. Then they are placed in an appropriate tank. Once a seal is eating on its own, and if it has no respiratory or skin problems and is active in its small tank and completely off medication, it is moved to a large pool with other seals, where the recovering animals spend a week or two improving their muscle tone by swimming, playing and eating a lot of fish.

Typically, this process goes swimmingly. But Schoelkopf says the nonprofit center is treating an increasing number of animals without increasing resources. “When the center started in 1978, there were five strandings in New Jersey; in 2010, we responded to 187,” he says. “As the years pass, there is a steady increase in sightings and strandings of marine mammals and sea turtles that are far out of their range [mostly due to changing weather patterns]. Species such as harp, hooded and ringed seals and green sea turtles add to our already growing numbers.” A comfortable capacity for the center’s four buildings—a pool house, intensive-care unit, museum and office situated on a half acre—is about a dozen seals, but last year, when the staff was inundated, they housed as many as 22 simultaneously. “We bought horse-watering tubs, the ones you’ll find at a farm-supply store, and set up makeshift tents outside the center,” recalls Sheila Dean, the center’s co-director.

Schoelkopf has yet to turn away a New Jersey animal, but for financial reasons, he says he can’t rule out the possibility. “Seals eat three to four times a day, depending on their condition, which averages to about 8 to 10 pounds of fish a day each,” he says. “Between food and medications, it can cost up to $2,000 per animal for a six-week stay.” After factoring in utilities, insurance, water and employee salaries, Schoelkopf estimates it costs about $650,000 a year to run the place. Many stranding facilities along the coast are partially funded by aquariums and universities, but the Marine Mammal Stranding Center relies solely on donations, grants, memberships and fund-raising efforts. While last year’s expenses totaled $625,751, the center initially was able to raise only $459,221. “If not for some bequests that were unexpected and unsolicited, we would have had a very sad financial year,” Dean says.

Despite these obstacles, the center maintains high recovery and return rates. In 2010, 83 percent of the seals that were alive when recovered by the center were released. Similarly, 100 percent of the turtles picked up were transported to a long-term rehabilitator. “Since we started on a shoestring budget, we know how to run on a shoestring budget,” Dean says. “You cut back where you need to. We don’t have a fancy building. Everybody’s got cramped little spaces. Maybe someday we’ll have a facility where we’re comfortable, too, but right now, it’s all about the animals’ comfort.”

Schoelkopf and his staff—most earn $25,000 to $30,000 a year—make do with the current facilities. The center just renewed its 25-year lease last summer. “It has never been about the money for me,” says Brandi Biehl, one of the center’s three stranding technicians. “It has always been about the animals. Each successful release is worth all of the hours and time. Even sad stories may give insight on how to save the next animal, or it may identify a possible illness or human interaction that we can help prevent in the future.”

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center offers summer educational programs for children.

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