Sand, Surf and Seals

For the first time in its 30-plus-year history, National Aquarium Animal Rescue has a permanent presence on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The Stranding Response Center in Ocean City is already proving its worth.

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Just after 7 p.m. on a rainy night in early March, National Aquarium Stranding Response and Triage Manager Kate Shaffer stands in the Aquarium's new triage center in Ocean City, Maryland. The garage door is up, spilling bright light out into the parking lot and letting a chilly wind blow in. A big, black Rubbermaid tub—the kind designed to hold water and feed for livestock—sits in the middle of the concrete floor. Beside it, Kate's prepped a station with swabs, test tubes, rubbing alcohol, syringes, a stethoscope and other equipment. She's joined by stranding response volunteer Kerry Smith and former volunteer/current intern Wes Schoellkopf. All three wear long-sleeved cotton shirts, rubber coveralls, rubber gloves and face masks.

A vehicle belonging to the Marine Education Research and Rehabilitation (MERR) Institute pulls up. In it is a seal rescued from the beach at Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware by MERR volunteers and Executive Director Suzanne Thurman.

This seal is the seventh Kate has responded to in Ocean City since the start of 2024 and the third to come into the center for triage. From January into March, she's also responded to multiple reports of marine mammals on local beaches and in the ocean. Even if animals are healthy, reported sightings help the Aquarium team understand what animals are in the area when. The National Aquarium Stranding Response Center officially opened in November 2023, and this level of activity underscores why it exists.

Filling a Critical Need

Since 1991, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have authorized the Aquarium to respond to sick and injured marine mammals and sea turtles on Maryland's coast.

"Animal rescue is such an important part of what the Aquarium does," Kate said, "but the two- to three-hour drive between Baltimore and the shore hindered our team's response time and was difficult for animals in distress."

In 2019, the Aquarium began plans to open a triage center on the Eastern Shore. Kate, her husband and their two young sons relocated from Baltimore to the beach in late 2021. Over the next two years, she developed and deepened the Aquarium's partnerships within the Ocean City community and helped find a suitable home for the center. The 400-square-foot space on 65th Street has a triage and treatment area and an office.

"Seals are by far our most common patients," Kate says. "They come in showing signs of dehydration and malnourishment, or with injuries from boats or other animals, sometimes entangled in debris. The center gives us a place where we can bring an animal to assess and stabilize it."

In addition to treating seals and sea turtles rescued by or destined for the National Aquarium, the center fills a critical need within the Greater Atlantic region by providing immediate care for sick and injured animals being transported elsewhere or returned to the ocean.

Assessing the New Patient

The seal arriving from Cape Henlopen this March night is a juvenile harp seal. Volunteers from MERR had monitored it for several hours and decided to act when it didn't return to the water and its condition didn't appear to improve.

Harp seals are an Arctic species that stay hydrated by eating ice and snow. When they arrive in the mid-Atlantic in winter, there's rarely ice and snow on beaches, so they eat what they find, sometimes sand and rocks. They can quickly become dangerously dehydrated. Because a dehydrated harp seal's condition can rapidly deteriorate, rescue organizations tend to take a harp seal from the beach more quickly than they would another species.

From Cape Henlopen, it's about an hour's drive to the Stranding Response Center. When the team from MERR pulls up, there's a sense of urgency but also of calm. There are strict protocols to follow, but Kate has been doing this work for more than 15 years and her unruffled sureness sets the tone in the room.

Kate, Wes, Kerry and Suzanne work together to weigh the crated seal using a large floor scale. The MERR team has recorded the crate's empty weight, so it's easy to subtract that to get the seal's weight. This one is just shy of 50 pounds. They then move the seal from the crate to the tub and begin a visual exam.

The seal is female, with dried blood on her mouth and flippers from abrasions. She's alert and active but shows signs of dehydration, with crusty sand ringing her round black eyes.

With Kate's help, Wes gets into the tub and restrains the seal, using his body weight to hold her still and his thighs to pin her front flippers against her body. Seals have sharp claws and teeth, so he must hold her head firmly but gently. Kate begins the intake exam while Kerry records observations, measurements and other data.

Kate moves quickly but with careful precision. The seal is less than a year old and more than 3 feet long. Kate takes her temperature, listens to her heart and lungs, swabs her eyes, ears, nares (or nostrils) and rectum, and gets blood samples. Once those steps are complete, Kate starts an IV drip and runs the blood samples. The center has basic blood processing equipment on-site to give Kate and the Aquarium's veterinary team information they need to make quick treatment decisions.

Kate calls Dr. Aimee Berliner, the Aquarium's director of Animal Health and Welfare. They talk through the test results and come up with a treatment plan. Kate continues IV hydration, tube-feeds Pedialyte and administers an antibiotic, all with help from Wes.

The Vital Role of Volunteers

Wes is studying biology at Salisbury University and is currently an intern with National Aquarium Animal Rescue; before that, he was a longtime volunteer. He and Kerry are among a small army of Animal Rescue volunteers who help make the Aquarium's Eastern Shore rescue engine go.

Stranding response volunteers receive advanced training so they can safely restrain and handle animals. They also learn basic triage techniques and, if they're interested, can assist with medical procedures and necropsies. Another group of volunteers, the seal stewards, are on call to monitor seals on beaches. When a seal comes up onto a local beach to rest, these volunteers set up a safe perimeter and educate the public about these mammals in Maryland.

Volunteer Wes Schoellkopf Restrains Rescued Grey Seal Pup Selkie in a Tub While Kate Shaffer Administers IV Fluids at the Ocean City Stranding Response Center with Transport Crate and Vehicle in Background
Kate Shaffer (left) and Wes Schoellkopf (right) give IV fluids to Selkie, a rescued grey seal pup.

When a seal is resting on a beach, giving it a wide berth—150 feet or more—protects people, their pets and the seals. This space also allows seals to feel comfortable enough to behave naturally, which helps volunteers determine if they're in need of help.

The triage center is named in honor of longtime Animal Rescue volunteers Chuck Erbe and his late wife, Ellen. "The fact that our program lasted as long as it did without full-time staff in Ocean City is due in huge part to Chuck and Ellen," Kate says. "Before we had staff here, they were our go-to folks for assessing, collecting and transporting animals."

In addition to support from individual volunteers, Kate says the entire Ocean City community has been extremely welcoming.

Bidding A Short-Term Patient Farewell

The little harp seal from Delaware has been nicknamed Medusa in keeping with Animal Rescue's 2024 mythical creatures naming theme. A few days at the triage center receiving IV fluids, tube feedings and antibiotics has perked her up. In fact, she's the center's first triage-only case.

"We provided her with immediate care, resolved her clinical symptoms and now we can return her right back to the ocean where she belongs," Kate says.

Kate Shaffer Looks Down at Rescued Harp Seal Medusa in Tub at Triage Center in Ocean City in Front of Open Garage Door with Aquarium Vehicle in Background
Kate Shaffer with rescued harp seal Medusa the morning of her release.

And so, at 8 a.m. on a cold, sunny March morning, Kate once again stands in the triage space with the garage door open, wearing rubber gloves and a face mask. Medusa is in the tub, looking around and sniffing the outdoor air.

A National Aquarium SUV arrives with a team from Baltimore—Senior Rehab Biologist Margot Madden, Husbandry Aide Kira Canter and volunteer Cayla Mahon—and another ready-to-go seal. Yeti is a juvenile male harp seal cared for at the Animal Care and Rescue Center since mid-February. He was there with Selkie, a maternally dependent grey seal pup rescued when she was just seven days old—the youngest ever to be treated at the ACRC. Selkie is expected to remain in rehab for a few more months. Yeti, though, only needed treatment for dehydration, minor lesions and intestinal parasites before being cleared for release by NOAA.

Kira restrains Medusa while Kate and Margot apply a plastic tag to her flipper to indicate that she's been treated by the National Aquarium. Then they load her into a transport crate, put her in the back of a separate Aquarium SUV, and drive her five short blocks to 70th Street.

Both SUVs pull onto the beach where a small group has gathered, mostly volunteers from MERR and the Aquarium, plus a few passers-by who have stopped to see what all the fuss is about. The team places the two crates side-by-side on the sand facing the water and opens them. Yeti and Medusa each scooch out, look around, then push and wriggle their way down to the water and quickly disappear in the surf.

What You Can Do

"For me, [every release] is a feeling of accomplishment—that we've helped that individual animal go back out and be able to live the life that it was intended to have," Kate says.

Seals are an important part of the Atlantic ecosystem. Thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other legislation, seal populations in our region are growing. There's even a newly established grey seal rookery off the coast of Cape Henlopen.

If you're in Maryland and see a seal or sea turtle, please report it to the National Aquarium's Animal Stranding Hotline at 410-576-3880. Outside Maryland, visit the NOAA Fisheries website to find marine wildlife responders in your area.

All National Aquarium stranding response and seal rehabilitation activities are conducted under NOAA permit 18786-04.

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