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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.

 

raykiss

(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.

floater

 gimp4

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.

Seal pox lesion.

Seal pox lesion.

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.

seal1

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.

ladylove

 

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.

GET INVOLVED

ADOPT” a rescued animal, make a cash or in-kind DONATION or become a MEMBER.

(One trip participant, Neena Dhamoon, is already raising funds from officemates, friends, and family!)

To volunteer, please email: volunteers@riverheadfoundation.org

(Different skill levels are needed, ranging from basic office help to *gentle* dolphin wrestling, after much training.)

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Sand tiger shark. Photo by J.L. Maher/WCS

 

 

Editor’s note: Yes, there are sharks swimming wild in New York City’s open waters! It took tremendous discipline to hold back this fantabulous Nature Community item by Paul Sieswerda, animal curator of the New York Aquarium (and a rare fellow Frisian New Yorker). But now you have it, for the first weekend of NYC’s public beach swimming season!

 

One sad note is that in the time between his writing and today, the aquarium’s longest-lived shark passed away. Bertha, a sand tiger shark photographed here by J.L. Maher of the Wildlife Conservation Society, was caught off the coast of Coney Island and lived at the aquarium for 43 years. Her species is so common in the New York Bight that the aquarium has traded young ones for others species from around the world. I had a kayaking encounter with another species of shark near the Narrows a few years back, but that tale will wait for another day.

 

 

“Sharks and the City”

 

By Paul Sieswerda

 

As Curator at a public aquarium, I am often above, in, or under the ocean’s surface and I think that I’m not alone in having brief shivers when the thought of what sea creatures may be eying my activities passes through my mind.  It’s just a flash of trepidation and doesn’t slow me down, but I have to admit to it. 

 

Sharks, of course, are prominent on that list of imagery and probably somewhat realistic in tropical waters. But in New York?  You’re right, that’s crazy. 

 

However…

 

The Chamber of Commerce may not like to publicize it, but the waters around New York are full of sharks.  Fortunately, the species are not man-eaters or dangerous, but sharks are plentiful and varied.  It should be stated however, that one of the most horrific episodes in shark attack history took place very close by.  In 1916, four fatal attacks took place along the New Jersey coast within the first twelve days of July, in Beach Haven and  Spring Lake, and miles inland, in Matawan Creek. Another victim was also attacked in Matawan, but survived with the loss of a leg.  That history changed the world’s image of sharks when Peter Benchley popularized the factual story in the book, Jaws.  Of course, the movie seared the fear of shark attacks further into the psyche of a worldwide population. The fishing fleet off Montauk catches enough monster sharks to keep the impression in the back of most New Yorkers’ minds.  However, experience settles those fears for New York swimmers since the chance of a shark attack ranks about in the same neighborhood as the risks as from asteroids.

 

Our native sharks are benign to humans.  Local species are fish eaters like the sand tiger shark or scavengers like the smooth dogfish.  There are sandbar sharks as well cruising off Coney Island beach.  These sharks are happy to hunt fish and leave humans completely alone.   In fact, sand tiger sharks and sand bar sharks rarely take bait from fishermen, so they are not often caught on hook and line.  The dogfish are another story, and many striper fishermen are disappointed to pull in a dogfish instead of a fat striper.

 

Sand tiger shark. Photo by J.L. Maher/WCS

 

Sand tiger shark, Carcharias taurus

The New York Aquarium has a number of sand tiger sharks on display.  One specimen lived in the collection over 40 years.  How long do they live? The shark in the photo, Bertha, was the longest living shark recorded at an aquarium and it was probably a couple of years old when it was captured.  Since then, the Aquarium has supplied itself and other institutions with sand tiger sharks.  Local fishermen catch them in their nets and notify the Aquarium.  Since these sharks are usually small they can be transported fairly easily.  Some have been sent as far away as Japan.  A “pupping”  ground seems to be along the southern coast of Long Island.  Young sand tigers are caught each year incidental to the fishermen’s target species.

 

            First Come, First Served

Sand tigers have a strange method of development. The embryos practice hunting within the mother!  This cannibalism before birth is called oophagy.

 

Eggs are produced in the shark mother’s two uterine tracks, one after another.  As the first egg develops into an embryonic shark, it eats the next developing embryo.  This continues until the birth of the two babies that have grown in each uterus.  They grow strong feeding on their potential siblings.  At birth, the young sand tiger sharks are forty inches (100 cm.) in length, and completely ready to hunt on their own.                                              From : Sharks by P. Sieswerda

 

The adult sand tigers are usually about seven feet in length.  They have two equal sized dorsal fins set at the rear half of the body.  The nose is pointed and often upturned.  The most prominent feature are the teeth that Richard Ellis, author and naturalist, calls the “wickedest-looking teeth in all of sharkdom.” 

 

These teeth, however, indicate that they are fish eaters and not prone to take bites out of large animals (species that do are a real danger to humans). Although they look ferocious, sand tigers have adapted a mouthful of fangs that are designed to effectively grasp slippery fish. Most sharks must continually swim at a speed that gives them lift, but sand tigers are able to keep from sinking by holding a gulp of surface air internally, allowing them to cruise at slow speed and save energy for quick lunges that catch their prey unaware. In aquariums, it was found that sand tigers needed a minimum depth in their tanks, not for any space requirement, but to allow them enough distance to launch themselves above the surface to gulp air.

 

 

Most New Yorkers will not see sand tiger sharks except at the New York Aquarium, but it may be interesting to know that when gazing out from a Brooklyn or Long Island beach, or even sharing the surf, there are sizeable sharks out there playing out their lives, with little threat to people and deserving only the slightest twinge of fear. Knowing the facts is comforting, but I think it’s human to worry a little.

 

Or is it just me? 

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