MERR responds to stranded or dead whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea turtles 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Reach them at 302-228-5029.
Before Suzanne Thurman founded the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute in 2000, aid for stranded marine mammals and sea turtles in Delaware was almost nonexistent.
The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control responded when able, but they didn’t have the resources to provide ill or injured marine mammals and sea turtles with care, much less study those that washed up dead.
Thurman volunteered to help with these cases and saw the desperate need for services.
“There was one incident in particular at Beach Plum Island, a turtle,” she said. “Nobody could take it, so I had to put it in my laundry room overnight. It was heartbreaking, but it ended up surviving after I took it to rehab. It made it apparent that we needed something here, at least for short term care.”
In forming MERR, Thurman sought to preserve marine mammal and sea turtle species through rescue and research efforts and to raise awareness and foster appreciation of the species through education. Over the last 19 years, she’s cultivated an essential, well-respected organization.
There’s no such thing as a typical day, but she usually works between 65 and 70 hours per week. As director, Thurman coordinates about 400 volunteers, writes grants, organizes fundraisers and plans educational activities.
Much of her time is put toward the nonprofit’s administrative needs, including working with DNREC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. MERR has special permits from both to respond to strandings. These come with numerous rules and regulations.
Thurman also participates in “rescues,” which range from dead whales to seals taking beach naps. It’s been a very busy year so far.
For example, on March 2, a 3.5-foot yearling harp seal stationed itself on Dewey Beach. It was slightly underweight, and after consulting with NOAA, MERR transported it for hydration therapy and then released it onto the beach.
On the same day, another yearling harp was found dead in Delaware Seashore State Park with a shark bite. It was taken in for necropsy.
Thurman said the number of seals, and marine mammals in general, reported to MERR has spiked over the last five years. She said MERR has made an effort to be more visible and, therefore, more are being reported. Smartphones make it easier to find MERR’s information.
In 2013, MERR was handling about 100 animals per year. That has tripled. Over the last month or so, MERR has responded to more than 40 animals.
On March 3, a dead adult dolphin was recovered from Dewey Beach and taken in for necropsy.
“Whales and dolphins should never come out of the water,” Thurman said. “Something is definitely wrong when they do. They’re either deceased or near death.”
What they do with a dead animal depends on its size. Whales can weigh many tons. If the animal is smaller than about 750 pounds, they take it to their lab for a necropsy to determine cause of death.
MERR works closely with state park officials. Sometimes they assist with heavy equipment. If an animal can’t be moved off the beach, it’s usually buried there.
Right now, mortality is unusually high among whales. The cause is not yet known. Humpback, minke and North Atlantic right whales are dying at a higher rate than usual.
Thurman has seen six humpbacks over the last two years, whereas in the past, she saw one every few years.
“By the time they’re visible to us, they’re so decomposed that we can’t get great samples,” Thurman said. “Many of ours were hit by boats, but we don’t know if that was postmortem, or if they were hit because they were already in a weakened condition.”
The only common denominator, according to Thurman, is the age range. Most of the deceased whales washing up are “young teenagers,” not fully grown.
Preserving sea life
“In our area, I see their habitat quality as the most pressing issue,” Thurman said. “The marine ecosystem is under siege.”
She encouraged people to be mindful of plastic packaging and to make conscious choices to use less to reduce the amount of trash in the ocean.
Thurman is also concerned about seismic testing and other underwater noises.
“It’s so harmful to not only the marine mammals, but to the livelihood of any tourist-based economy,” she said.
Right now, MERR is gearing up for a capital campaign to fund a new educational center, which will be adjacent to their facilities on Pilottown Road in Lewes. The center will be open to students, families and visitors and will provide information on marine life and the marine ecosystem. The building itself will be eco-friendly, teaching visitors how to make their own homes more sustainable.
“We expect the paperwork to be completed in the next few months,” Thurman said.