Marine Animal Rescue Program Marks 20 Years

OCEAN CITY — The National Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP), a vast collection of paid professionals and dedicated volunteers, turns 20 this week and is celebrating two decades of rescuing injured or sick marine mammals and sea turtles along the coast of Ocean City and beyond and often rehabilitating them for a release back into the wild.

The National Aquarium, which is celebrating its own 30th anniversary this year, established the MARP program back in 1991 with the goal of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing stranded marine animals such as seals, dolphins and sea turtles back into their natural environment when possible. In the two decades since its establishment, the MARP program has returned roughly 100 rescued animals back into their natural habitats, thanks to the tireless work of paid professionals and a legion of volunteers, including a core group of about a dozen local volunteers operating out of the Ocean City area.

Stranded animals are admitted to the MARP program for a variety of reasons. Some have become ill or injured because of man-made factors such as boat strikes, gear entanglements, plastic ingestion or pollution, while others have been affected by natural causes from weather, malnourishment and exhaustion.

Stranding is often a sick or injured marine animal’s last effort at survival, which is when the MARP team intercedes. Local volunteer Chuck Erbe, who has been with the Ocean City arm of the program for about 10 years, said the team is often called by citizens, police officers or animal control officers at all hours and in all kinds of weather to respond to an injured or stranded marine animal.

“The first thing we do is observe the animal in an effort to determine if its sick, injured or in need of rescue for a variety of reasons,” he said. “After we cordon the area off to protect the animal, we contact the aquarium and wait for further instructions. There are times when the Aquarium people come to us, and times when we transport animals to the rehab facilities ourselves.”

The local MARP volunteers are often asked to respond to a stranded turtle, seal, dolphin or even whale at a moment’s notice, sometimes in the middle of the night or in the worst of weather conditions. Erbe and his wife own a property management company that allows them to respond quickly when necessary.

“I’m fortunate because it affords me the opportunity to drop what I’m doing when a call comes in,” he said. “I’m lucky to be able to respond when the call comes in. We’re often called at all hours of the day and in nasty weather often. It’s certainly not a 9-5 job.”

The local MARP team often responds to rescue seals that have beached themselves for a variety of reasons, or sea turtles snarled in fishing gear, or even the occasional dolphin or whale. In one of the unusual recent examples, the MARP team responded in May 2010 to the stranding of a rare 11-foot Gervais beaked whale that had stranded itself on a sandbar in the Assawoman Bay. The whale, which is rarely seen in the wild by man, could not be revived.

“That was a sad day,” he said. “That was one that we couldn’t rescue and it had to be euthanized. It was sad because it was such a rare and special creature.”

On another occasion, Erbe and the local MARP volunteers were able to rescue a loggerhead turtle from the Ocean City Inlet that had been ensnared and covered with barnacles, seaweed and mud. The turtle was rescued and rehabilitated and later released back into the wild when healthy.

“That was a good day,” he said. “Those are the ones that keep you going. I can’t tell you what it does for my heart when we’re able to rescue a dying marine animal and see it rehabilitated and released again. I am truly honored and blessed to be able to do this work.”

MARP Coordinator Jennifer Dittmar said this week the program began as an arm of the National Aquarium in Baltimore and expanded over the years to cover a much larger geographic area.

“Initially, it was pretty much just the Eastern Shore and the Delmarva Peninsula, but we’ve expanded over the years to cover the entire mid-Atlantic region and beyond,” she said. “There’s a network of similar agencies up and down the coast we interact with and share resources with.”

Dittmar said the program would not have the resources to do rescues, rehabilitations and releases without the dedicated work of the volunteers.

“We’re very much dependent on the volunteers like Greg and the crew in Ocean City,” she said. “They’re our first responders. They are on the scene quickly and make an assessment on the animal’s condition.”

Dittmar and her staff at the aquarium in Baltimore then make their own assessment about what’s best for the injured or ill animal and set in motion a plan for recovery and rehabilitation.

“After I hear from them, I’ll make a determination and work out a plan based on the available resources,” she said. “I’ll get the call and basically act like a dispatcher.”

While Erbe and the local MARP volunteers are on the front lines of marine animal rescues, another significant portion of their work revolves around public outreach and awareness. The MARP volunteers often host seminars and programs instructing the public about the dangers of man-made hazards in the marine environment such as plastic bags, mylar balloons and mono-filament fishing line, for example.

Just last weekend, Erbe and the local MARP volunteers conducted a outreach program at during Ocean City’s Sundaes in the Park program at Northside Park attended by 172 people. Erbe said the outreach element of the program is rewarding in that it teaches a younger generation about their neighboring marine environment.

“Reaching young children and teaching them what’s out there is rewarding,” he said. “You can see it in their eyes and you know they take it with them.”

Dittmar agreed the proactive outreach and education programs are effective in promoting awareness that could lead to fewer strandings caused by man-made factors.

“Our outreach and awareness programs are some of the most important things we do,” she said. “We’re extremely fortunate to have folks volunteering for us that have lived in Ocean City for 30 years or more and they get out there all the time and talk to people.”

Recently, the MARP’s program has responded most often to stranded or beached seals in the resort area. Although Dittmar said it is not unusual to have seals appear on the beach or in the back bays in Ocean City, the phenomena has seemed to occur more frequently in recent years.

Just two weeks ago, “Guinness,” a gray seal rescued in North Carolina and rehabilitated back to health was released from the beach at 40th Street in Ocean City.

Last May, another seal rescued in Ocean City, “Hastings,” was successfully released back into the wild. In one of the more unusual rescues in recent memory, the MARP team in March 2010 responded to rescue a harp seal that had found its way to the side of a rural road in southern Worcester County. In that case, the local MARP team was able to capture the out of place but otherwise uninjured seal and release it from the beach at Assateague the next day without any rehabilitation.

“Ultimately, our goal is to return them to their natural environment,” said. “That’s the end goal for everything we do.”