NEWPORT, R.I. – Being on call as a college student in Newport, sophomore Stephanie Beels never knows what animalistic behavior she’ll be confronted with when her phone rings.
Last Sunday, it rang.
It was Mystic Aquarium’s Walter “Skip” Graf on the line and he needed Beels to get to the boat landing at King Park Beach on Wellington Avenue as quickly as possible to watch over a stranded seal. Beels, a biology major and president of Salve Regina’s Protect Our Wildlife (POW) club, is also a certified first responder for Mystic Aquarium’s Marine Mammal & Sea Turtle Stranding Program … so she knew exactly what to do.
A pre-med student from Marstons Mills, Mass., Beels responded. She brought her friend, freshman Kim Kleszczynski, with her to the scene, where they found a month-old lanugo-grey seal pup on the beach. The students watched over the seal to make sure no dogs or people bothered him, they cleared away local pollutants, took pictures, and were in constant contact with Mystic Aquarium professionals to help them evaluate whether the pup needed to be transported for medical care or was healthy enough to be returned to its natural habitat.
Turns out the young lanugo-grey pup had gotten himself into a little trouble the night before near the point at Fort Adams. Looking to be in good health, responders left him alone and he ended up swimming about 2 kilometers overnight before stranding himself on the beach at King Park the next day. Once again, the young but healthy pup eventually migrated back to the water and swam off, a successful response by all accounts.
During the stranding season, which typically begins in January and lasts through the summer, these occurrences are more frequent than people might think. In fact, during this same week that Beels got her call, Graf was monitoring five stranded pups along the Connecticut and Rhode Island coastline, dispatching more than three dozen first responders.
“The Mystic Aquarium first responders program is great training for anybody who wants to become a marine biologist, any type of emergency responder, or for someone who just genuinely loves to help animals in need,” Beels said. “I mostly enjoy the personal responsibility that comes with the program. Mystic Aquarium relies on their first responders to essentially be their eyes and ears when they can’t be there themselves.”
The efforts of the Aquarium and its volunteer first responder network are centered on the coasts of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Fishers Island, N.Y., but they also support institutions from Maine to New Jersey, and even in Texas, when other institutions need support for their operations.
To date the Aquarium has responded to more than 1,100 stranded seals, whales, dolphins and sea turtles. Scientists maintain data on marine mammal and sea turtle strandings and sightings as a means of monitoring the behavior and health of these animals.
Beels said the first responders program is a first step toward preparing her for the intensity of working as a medical professional, something she aspires to do. “The experience parallels the simplest nature of an EMT, minus the actual medical application,” she said. “When an individual is in need, the first responder and the EMT both respond to the scene and do what they can to help return them to their traditional environment.”
Last April, Salve Regina’s Protect Our Wildlife Club and Environmental Club hosted a first responder training program for students and the general public. Participants took a two-hour class to learn about the different kinds of seals and how to respond to animal strandings. Beels said the organizations are hoping to offer another training session this coming April at Salve Regina.
“The first responders program serves as my hobby and my excitement while still progressing me toward my professional and personal humanitarian goals,” she said. “Mystic Aquarium puts their whole hearts and souls into helping marine wildlife, as well as getting the community involved in their efforts.”
Photo captions: Sophomore Stephanie Beels, a certified first responder for Mystic Aquarium’s Marine Mammal & Sea Turtle Stranding Program, watches over a young lanugo-grey seal pup stranded at King Park Beach in Newport.
Beels is pictured in the biology lab at Salve Regina University.