Suzanne Thurman

Executive Director, Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute

Photo by Maria DeForrest

Marrying her twin passions for marine mammal conservation and education, Suzanne Thurman launched the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute 20 years ago. Based in Lewes, the nonprofit responds to marine mammal distress, from strandings to animals that have succumbed to injuries.

“Delaware is a very unique. Our coastline, it’s so tiny, but we get this huge biodiversity of species because we’re right at the border between the northern species and the southern species,” Thurman explains.

Responding to nearly 300 animals each year, MERR comprises over 500 volunteers. Most calls are for seals. Whenever an animal appears to be in distress, residents or visitors can report sightings to MERR, which is on call 24/7. It then dispatches a response team to conduct an assessment, mount a rescue, or support the animal in its final stages of life. Other species like fin whales, dolphins, porpoises, manatees, and sea turtles occasionally require a response. Locally, marine mammals suffer from human-related activity like boating, fishing or marine debris, including microplastics. Large ship strikes can also be fatal or injurious.

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While Thurman and her team work to save animals, she’s also focused on education and making residents aware of small ways they can make the ocean safer for these species. To that end, she’s working to launch a new education center in Lewes, aimed at secondary students and the general public.

“We view education and outreach as the most powerful tool we have towards conservation. It’s through that education process that people start to become aware of our impacts, and they also start to understand the animals better, to care about them,” Thurman says. “To empower these children with information is probably the most meaningful thing that there is to me.”

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