Steward of the Sea

Whenever wounded animals wash ashore, Suzanne Thurman shows up to help. But it’s education, she says, that will ultimately save them.

Suzanne Thurman uses such props as whale flipper bones,
a sea turtle skull and a whale vertebrae to help teach
children about environmental awareness.
Photograph by Keith Mosher



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The skull that adorns Suzanne Thurman’s office belonged to a 70,000-pound monster. It was a fin whale, the second largest whale species in the world. The 55-footer who belonged to it, distinguished by its baleen plates and asymmetrical coloration around its mouth, washed up on Middlesex Beach last May.

Thurman’s job was to move it.

It took three solid days, help from the Division of Soil and Water, and a couple pieces of heavy lifting equipment to get the behemoth off the beach. Before burial, Thurman and volunteers collected data, biological samples and specimens. And, of course, the skull.

The stranding was one of 90 Thurman dealt with in 2006. She is the director of the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute, a non-profit stranding response organization based near Lewes. When a dolphin or a sea turtle washes up on the beach, Thurman gets the call. If the animal is dead, she becomes the Gil Grissom of the Delaware seashore, conducting “CSI”-like inspections, using tissue samples and forensic methods to determine cause of death and details about the animal’s final moments. If the animal is alive, she kicks into high gear, coordinating volunteers, administering first aid and lecturing onlookers.

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“Yeah, it’s a full time job,” she says.

Thurman handles each stranding personally. She was on hand in 2006 for all seven whales, 27 seals, 40 turtles, 12 dolphins, three porpoises and one manatee that washed ashore here. Many cases involve removing an often-gigantic carcass from the beach, taking blood and tissue samples and conducting a necropsy, the animal version of an autopsy.

Thurman’s cell phone rings constantly. It rings after midnight, during birthday parties and on Christmas. Though MERR has come a long way since its bare bones beginnings in 2000, Thurman still does the work of a half dozen employees.

Her headquarters is a blocky, white aluminum building near the UD College of Marine and Earth Studies in Lewes, adjacent to the Broadkill River. Just beyond that is the Delaware Bay. Lewes owns this chunk of land, which it leases to UD, which in turn, leases to MERR. If not for the giant fin whale skull in the front yard, you’d swear the facility was a storage garage.

Thurman is embroiled in the task of hosing off a grateful diamondback terrapin. It’s not a species she typically rescues. Rather, the reptile is shown to children during education seminars, which are Thurman’s favorite part of her job.

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Before long, 18 fresh-faced tykes arrive from the Killens Pond State Park day camp, armed with tough questions and a breadth of SpongeBob-related undersea knowledge.

Thurman’s cluttered lab is decorated with poster boards and displays, plush turtles and inflatable dolphins. But the kids’ eyes dart immediately to the giant skull, with its beach ball-sized eye sockets and its bristly baleen.

“I really think education is the most effective tool that we have toward changing anything,” she says. “It’s the most hopeful part of the work I do. They grow up with this knowledge instead of having to change their ways. They grow up with this stewardship and responsibility for their actions.”

Eleven-year-old A.J. Hayward responded with gusto when Thurman spoke to his class in 2006. He has since raised $1,700 for MERR through bake sales at his school. He also helped at the fin whale stranding and helped monitor the heartbeat of a hooded seal stranded in 2006.

Hayward, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s 2006 Young Environmentalist of the Year, has informed Thurman that she can’t retire until he completes his master’s degree, so that he can take over her post. “She’s been an awesome role model for me,” he says.

Research and preservation are other parts of Thurman’s daily life. MERR contributes to government and private research efforts, mainly by collecting blood, tissue and organ samples of dead animals. MERR’s samples are then analyzed by larger labs, which look for trends and correlations to ocean health.

MERR’s annual dolphin count was extremely low last year. Just 38 dolphins were counted on a summer day in Delaware waters, down from 78 in 2006, and 108 in 2005. The data may have been skewed by choppy waters, poor visibility or an ominous third option Thurman doesn’t want to think about.

Tan and pretty, with freckled arms and a thin frame, Thurman shows nary a hint of cat lady eccentricity. She loves animals, but she’s learned it’s best not to get attached. Throwing herself into the situation, like a true emergency medical technician, is the best way to cope with tragic situations.

On her first stranding—a pygmy sperm whale with a broken jaw—Thurman jumped fully clothed into the November ocean and began treatment. “I think that all emergency responders have to go into that mode. Look at all the essential things, find the resources, and do it,” she says.

Still, it was hard to brace for the aftermath. The whale left a calf orphaned and lost at sea. The calf likely didn’t survive.

“I have to remind myself constantly to keep moving,” she says. “But sometimes I get very disturbed by the bigger environmental issues out there. That’s where education comes in, teaching people about the dangers of boat propellers, toxins in the water and air, the trash, plastics, packaging and fishing lines from irresponsible fishermen.”

Even something as innocuous as a balloon causes Thurman great stress. “The animal mistakes it for fish, they eat it, and it just rips up their insides.”

Thurman earned a degree in special education and minored in environmental study at Wheelock College in Boston. She worked at Sussex Consortium, teaching the autistic unit, then later at the Seaside Nature Center. All the while, she soaked up field guides, classes and workshops to hone her knowledge about marine animals.

Thurman created MERR in 2000 after several years of doing the same work as a volunteer. At the time, there was no organized program, facility or funding to handle dead or injured animals. DNREC responded to reports, with Thurman on hand as an unpaid coordinator.

“The previous system was sort of bare bones,” she says. “The goal was just to bury the animals out of sight. It was apparent to me that we needed a facility to take animals for immediate care.”

Funding was scarce initially, and it took time to establish MERR in the Delaware beach community. Still, Thurman took a leap of faith, quitting her full-time job at the nature center. She moved into her current building in September 2004.

Thurman has since secured several state and federal grants, on top of fundraising monies, to help MERR expand its operations. She hopes that in time, she’ll raise enough to build a rehabilitation pool for dolphins instead of risking transport to other facilities. Live rescues often wind up at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Virginia Aquarium Marine Science Center or the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey, for treatment.

Strandings occur up and down Delaware coastlines, Thurman says, and a more expansive treatment facility would help cut down on lengthy transport and save more lives.

“The majority of the strandings are in Sussex County,” Thurman says. “Cape Henlopen and Slaughter Beach get the highest volume. It would be unlikely that we get a whale up the Delaware Bay, although we did get a young humpback whale in 1992.”

Whatever the tide brings in, Thurman will be waiting for it.

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