They rescue ailing seals — plus dolphins, turtles and whales — along Jersey’s shores
Jerry Carino, @njhoopshaven
A look at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, where the stories are fascinating and the concern over offshore oil drilling runs deep.
BRIGANTINE — The woman on the other end of the phone was a mom from Spring Lake. She posed a simple question — one that set off alarm bells at Marine Mammal Stranding Center.
What do seals eat?
“She picked one up off the beach, took it home and put it in her bathtub for her five kids to play with,” said Bob Schoelkopf, the nonprofit center’s founding director. “These are wild animals and they have teeth. Nobody should touch them.”
This is an impressive operation. In 2017, Schoelkopf and his team dealt with 65 seals, 56 turtles, 27 dolphins, 12 porpoises and seven whales. Of the seals, only eight died at the center.
Schoelkopf was a Navy corpsman in Vietnam. Intense shelling during the Tet Offensive cost him 50 percent of his hearing in both ears. After getting Medevaced home he took up work at a nearby aquarium. The captivity scene didn’t sit well with him, so he founded Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.
“They come in not knowing how to eat in many cases,” Schoelkopf said. “We have to teach them what food is and how to swallow it. That keeps us hopping.”
He’s got stories. Like the time, in 1994, that a right whale turned got stranded in the Delaware River near Philadelphia. Schoelkopf used his military contacts to get crucial help from Navy SEAL personnel. A thank-you letter from the SEAL commander still hangs in his office.
Two years ago, they rescued a seal with a fish hook embedded in its mouth at Island Beach State Park. They saved another whose flipper nearly got sawed off by a boat propeller.
Seals bite hard
Schoelkopf’s biggest advice to wintertime beachgoers: Do not approach seals.
“Some people think they don’t belong on land, but they do; that’s where they rest and sleep,” he said. “About five years ago, one woman saw a baby gray seal, grabbed it by the flippers and tried to pull it into the water. She got bit.”
“I’ve been bit maybe seven times in 40 years,” Schoelkopf said. “The infection sets in within 24 hours, and I mean bad. I’ve had red lines up my arms. Once my whole hand looked like a boxing glove.”
He can tell by a photograph is a seal is distressed. Right now, he said, there are three healthy ones hanging out in the Shark River next to Belmar. Jersey is teaming with marine wildlife. It keeps Schoelkopf and his crew busy — but could soon overwhelm them.
Schoelkopf was on the front line when outbreaks of the disease morbillivirus killed untold numbers of dolphins in 1987 and 2013. Now he fears something that could damage the species even more: offshore oil drilling.
“In the summertime you can see 40 to 60 dolphins at a time swimming along the beach, feeding,” Schoelkopf said. “With seismic testing, they’re going to trap those animals against the coast. There’s no place else for them to go.”
“We have no idea what we’re going to do with all the animals that may come up on the beaches,” he said.
New Jerseyans would be outraged at the sight, but by then, it might be too late.
On MMSC’s grounds sits the skull of a baby Humpback whale that washed up at Island Beach State Park in 1991. It bears cuts from a ship propeller — a sign of our ecosystem’s delicate balance, and a reminder that in the rescue business, you never know what call is coming in next.
Spend 10-minutes watching incredible encounters with other marine life at the Jersey Shore in the video below.
Whale watching along New Jersey’s coast is nothing short of magical. The best chance to see these majestic mammals and other Jersey giants of the sea is during spring and fall. Take a 10-minute break and dive into this amazing world. Ryan Ross | Dan Radel | Brian Johnston | Tanya Breen | Joe Lamberti
Carino’s Corner appears Mondays in the Asbury Park Press. Contact Jerry at jcarino@gannettnj,com.