by Erik Baard
If a seal falls ill in the Gowanus Canal, a turtle catches an autumnal chill in Montauk, and a dolphin gets marsh bound in the Great South Bay, there’s a good chance they’ll end up as roommates at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.
As New York State’s only authorized marine mammal and sea turtle rescue group, the Riverhead Foundation is called upon to perform rescues and verify unusual sightings throughout the southern New York salty shorelines — the Long Island Sound, Atlantic Ocean, New York Bight and New York Harbor. The small, overstretched staff is like an aquatic A-Team housed within the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium, a well-run regional attraction where sting rays poke up to kiss you right upon entering the door. Really. Well, okay, and be fed.
(This photo and those following, unless otherwise specified, were taken by trip participant Sofia Theologitis.)
Our Nature Calendar group of five was ushered into the back rooms where the Riverhead Foundation does its work of assessing, monitoring, and healing animals held in cylindrical tanks for eventual release into the ocean or transfer to another aquarium. The most frequent guests are seals and turtles (we saw about ten of them, representing a mix of species that including harbor seals and a loggerhead turtle that had arrived an hour before us), though dolphins and porpoises are regulars too.
(I learned about the foundation eight years ago when I was with a pod of fellow winter kayakers who confirmed Harry Spitz’s sighting of the first community of seals in New York Harbor in 120 years, and wrote about it for the New York Times.)
You’ll know that turtles are in residence if upon stepping off the decontamination shoe pad you’re hit with a wave of warm, moist air. Some “cold stunned” turtles appear dead because they’ve been immobilized by temperature drops, before they could migrate to warmer waters.
“They get washed ashore like any other debris,” said rescue program supervisor Julika Wocial, who trains the public in making proper sighting and stranding reports . “Don’t assume a turtle is dead unless it’s decomposed or missing a head.”
Other turtles can’t dive well because of trapped gas pockets in their shells. This makes it hard to feed, leaves them vulnerable to predators and boat injuries, and above-surface shells sections can degrade with prolonged air exposure (as with the patient below). A bubble can be drained, but evenly distributed gas is a challenge. Sometimes weights are added, or the turtle is found unfit for release.
Flipper injuries like the one photographed below were common (suspected shark bites) among turtles, as are propeller lacerations. Even double rear amputees can survive in the wild, explained Robert DiGiovanni Jr., director and senior biologist at the foundation.
Whirl pools at the center of seal tanks mimic ocean currents and combat muscle atrophy.
Seal pox further weakened a few already struggling pinipeds. The viral disease, which isn’t transmittable to humans, runs its course with the severity and duration of our experience of chicken pox. Instead of many small pustules dotting the skin, however, seals get several larger, hard knobs near their faces and flippers.
Perhaps more surprising was how common eye injuries are among seals. Of course, those at the foundation were being rehabilitated and weren’t representative of the general population. It makes sense, however, that seals would often get bitten or poked around the eyes as they rooted around the seabed.
The staff takes special care to not bond with the animals, so that they retain natural behaviors and a healthy aversion to humans upon release. As social mammals with expressive faces, seals make this particularly difficult. Well, at least for me. The female seal I photographed below and I had some immediate chemistry. Ms. Wocial mildly reprimanded me for lingering and chatting with this pirate-eyed beauty.
Staff and highly-trained volunteers work together in both rescues and releases, with the latter being sometimes nearly ceremonial. Sponsors who “adopt” seals and turtles come out, as do reporters and other friends of the foundation. Sometimes a dolphin must be gently ushered out of its tank by a wall of staff and volunteers wearing dry suits, with arms interlocked. Slight injuries, sometimes quite painful, are common among the humans.
Costs for rescue, rehabilitation, and release range from $6500 for a seal to $120,000 for a dolphin. Medical machines are always needed, Mr. DiGiovanni said, and often come through hospital donations. One recent acquisition greatly improving the Riverhead Foundation’s field work is a portable unit to test for blood gases, electrolytes, and glucose levels.
Released patients of the rescue hospital have paid back their human tenders with unprecendented revelations. Tracking devices on their backs have mapped migration patterns, not only north-to-south, but inshore and offshore, where deeper waters have steadier temperatures, according to Mr. DiGiovanni. The foundation doesn’t necessarily deliver animals to places near their rescue locations because they usually swim hundreds or thousands of miles within weeks or months of returning to the wild.
Our own path was more predictable. As people now contaminated by seal pox, we were slipped out the back door. Our hosts apologized for the necessity, and stopped short of making us wear leper bells.
(One trip participant, Neena Dhamoon, is already raising funds from officemates, friends, and family!)
To volunteer, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
(Different skill levels are needed, ranging from basic office help to *gentle* dolphin wrestling, after much training.)