One lesson I’ve learned working at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center in animal rehabilitation is that you always have to be ready to get your feet wet. Working with wild animals means having to constantly adapt to the animal’s condition, anticipating their sometimes-unpredictable reactions, and quickly jumping in on treatments when help is needed – all of which has been completely new to me.
Last month, I definitely got my feet soaked. On October 15th, we got a call about a stranded mammal on Jekyll Island. Typically, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources responds to these types of calls, however, we were much closer and knew that we would be able to help until they arrived. When we got to the stranding location, I couldn’t believe my eyes – sure enough there was a 10-foot long pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) on the beach! Unfortunately, when large marine mammals like this strand, it usually means it is injured or sick since healthy marine mammals don’t intentionally strand. Therefore, our team immediately started moving the whale up the beach, as we didn’t want it to drift back into the water and re-strand elsewhere along the coast. I’ll spare you all the details, but after a good 45 minutes of holding the whale upright amid the incoming tide and a lot of strong hands (and later – sore muscles), we were able to hoist the whale into the bed of a truck.
All of this was a completely new experience for me, as I had never even seen a whale in the ocean before. We brought the whale to the bone yard to perform a necropsy (basically an autopsy on an animal) in order to find out what had caused it to strand. Surprisingly, we found 2 sheets of black plastic (they reminded me of black trash bags) that were each about a foot long and a few inches wide in the whale’s stomach. Working in environmental education and having previous fieldwork experience on the coast, I know that there is a lot of marine debris in the ocean. I’ve taught others about it’s effects on marine life, seen it wash up day after day on the beach, but I never thought I would see it inside an such an incredible animal like the pygmy sperm whale. For me, it was a very defining moment to see the dire effect that plastic trash (something we see in abundance everyday) had on this whale. It was really upsetting to know that plastic pollution had contributed to the death of such a large, powerful, majestic mammal.
Although what happened to the pygmy sperm whale is sad, it makes me incredibly grateful that I have the opportunity to work in animal rehabilitation. If pollution, habitat destruction, over-harvesting, and other anthropogenic factors are harming animals in our oceans, then I am even more determined to do everything I can to prevent and counteract that impact. Even in our daily lives, there is a lot we can change to reduce the amount of trash produced by consuming less, and recycling and reusing more. However, I want to challenge both myself, and anybody reading this, to do more. Pick up trash you see even if it isn’t yours and even organize a beach or river cleanup. Encourage others to do the same by spreading awareness of the harsh effects that pollution has on marine life. Every piece of plastic that we can pick-up is one less piece that a bird, sea turtle, or a whale might accidentally mistake for food. What if somebody had picked up those two pieces of black plastic?
Here’s an awesome and uplifting story from the Marine Mammal Center about two sea lions entangled by fishing line that they were able to rescue: