Photo by luigi ciuffetelli
If during the past 20 years you’ve seen a photo or footage of a whale, seal, dolphin or sea turtle stranded on one of Delaware’s beaches, then you’ve likely witnessed Suzanne Thurman in her element. The founder of the nonprofit MERR—Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute—based in Lewes, is the state’s top first responder when it comes to rescuing marine mammals.
What inspired you to work with marine mammals?
My family moved to coastal Sussex County in the ’70s and I fell in love with the ocean. Since I was 7 years old, I wanted to be a teacher. When I was 11, I read Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us.” I already had an awareness of environmental issues in the ocean and I just knew in my heart that I wanted to blend my goal of being an educator with environmentalism. I founded MERR in 2000 to provide better services for stranded animals.
Why is the educational component of your mission so important?
I believe it will make a difference toward conservation because most people want to help and do the right thing, but they don’t realize that their behaviors are negatively impacting the environment. As people learn more, they start to look at animals as fellow creatures that have families and emotions. They learn about all kinds of things we can relate to, such as knowing that when a mother dolphin loses her calf and it dies, she will mourn for over a year.
Did you ever think you’d be doing this for 20 years?
I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. It’s my reason for being. It’s grown extensively. We will soon be launching our education center campaign and that’s exciting because so many people will benefit from the education piece of what we do.
What is the toughest part of your job?
The emotional aspect. It’s hardest when we’ve rescued an animal when they’re alive and then they die. It also takes a toll on our volunteers because everybody who does this work does it from a heartfelt place. I think the challenge is not to get discouraged when environmental laws are minimized or done away with. We want to give a message of hope and empowerment to people—especially children. We want them to feel like they can make a difference.
Do you have a favorite marine animal?
I am quite fond of humpback whales and the way they live their lives. They’re so in tune with their environment. They have an elaborate courtship behavior where the males all sing the same song. It’s actually compared to classical music in terms of the complexity of the notes. If they sense there is a food shortage, the large whales refrain from breeding that year so that they don’t put an additional taxation upon their resources. To me they are these graceful, magnificent creatures living in harmony with their environment. We could really take a page from their book.