Mote Marine volunteers honored by NOAA

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SARASOTA, Fla. --  Animal rescuers from Mote Marine Laboratory were honored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this month for their exemplary response to a mass stranding of pilot whales.

Mote’s Stranding Investigations Program, which spent several days tending to numerous pilot whales that washed ashore during late January and early February in Lee and Collier counties, was honored with a special award by NOAA staff citing their “extraordinary efforts” during the stranding. NOAA officials presented awards to Mote and other Florida-based responders on May 14 during the biennial conference of the Southeast U.S. Marine Mammal Stranding Network held in Orlando, Fla.

The Lee-Collier mass stranding killed 38 pilot whales and demanded a marathon response from animal caregivers and scientists from multiple institutions called to the scene as part of NOAA’s nationwide Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Mote responders led and assisted with efforts to handle, transport and assess the condition of the whales, to humanely euthanize whales that were too sick to survive and to conduct necropsies (animal autopsies) to investigate why the whales stranded.

“This was one of the largest mass strandings I’ve worked on during my 15 years in the field,” said Gretchen Lovewell, Manager of Mote’s Stranding Investigations Program. “Even while we were all sad to see the animals in distress, it was inspiring to see how all of the organizations joined forces and rolled up their sleeves.”

Blair Mase, NOAA’s Southeast Stranding Coordinator, presented awards to the stranding responders and said she was also inspired by their teamwork. “The efforts and collaborative spirit of our agency partners are invaluable and make it possible for these types of large scale responses to happen.”

Other partners honored by NOAA for their roles in the Southwest Florida pilot whale strandings included: the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Southwest Field Laboratory and Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, University of Florida, Marine Animal Rescue Society and Marine Mammal Conservancy.

Mote’s Stranding Investigations Program is the 24-hour marine animal response service designated by NOAA for Sarasota and Manatee counties, and Mote staff are often called to assist with strandings in other areas. Without the expertise of Mote and its partners throughout this nationwide network, it would not be possible to mount a swift, coordinated team response to strandings and ensure that scientists learn as much as possible from them.

That type of exemplary response came together during the recent mass stranding, Lovewell said.

“Some of our team members have been doing this for years, while others had never experienced a stranding this serious — and they all did an amazing job. We did not expect to receive an award, but it’s a reminder of why I’m proud and honored to be part of this team.”

“The success of our team goes far beyond this single achievement,” said Dr. Michael P. Crosby, President and CEO of Mote. “They have responded dependably and excellently to strandings year after year, despite the declines in funding sources available to such response programs.”

The cost of Mote responding to a major event like the pilot whale stranding is about $14,000. But key funding sources — like the federally funded Prescott Grants Program, which is a major source of dollars for rehabilitation and stranding investigations in the nation and at Mote — have been cut drastically in recent years.

“This mass stranding is a reason to remember and reassess the value of stranding response efforts like our program at Mote,” Crosby said. “Their contributions to animal care, science and conservation are priceless.”

The team that carried out and coordinated Mote’s response to the pilot whale strandings included:

  • Gretchen Lovewell, Manager of the Stranding Investigations Program
  • Rebeccah Hazelkorn, staff biologist with the Stranding Investigations Program
  • Dr. Abe Robinson, Marine Veterinarian Research Post-doctoral Fellow
  • Nadine Slimak, Director of Communications
  • Aaron Barleycorn, Field Coordinator for the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program
  • Connie Murk, Animal Care Technician
  • Lynne Byrd, CVT, Medical Care and Rehabilitation Coordinator for Mote's animal hospitals
  • Dr. Andy Stamper, Consulting Veterinarian
  • Stacy Proie and Stacy Albin, Mote interns
  • Madelaine Verbeek, Mote volunteer