Freeing Willy: What happens when an orca gets stranded on the ESF quad

A visiting alum schools students in saving marine mammals.

The orca whale stranded on the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry quad wasn’t moving.

“We’re saving a marine mammal!” Gail Riina, chaplain of the Lutheran Catholic Ministry, called to a group of students walking nearby, “Come learn how!”

Inflatable and thus without the realistic thrashing fins, the orca still provided an interesting demonstration tool for students who wanted to practice moving a stranded sea creature. The teaching event, hosted by the Lutheran Catholic Ministry and led by Syracuse alum Tim Fuller, took place the Monday before Spring Break, a week during which ‘Cuse students may actually jet off to destinations where stumbling upon stranded marine life is a lot more likely.

Fuller, a NASA contractor, described his experiences volunteering and working for the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network to the group of students gathered around him and the orca outside.Stranding Networks -- groups that rescue, rehabilitate, and release marine mammals that end up on beaches or stuck in shallow water – present an amazing opportunity for those interested in marine life to volunteer to work with real creature. Fuller briefed the students on proper rescue protocol and then guided them in maneuvering the large creature into a sling. In a real-life stranding situation, volunteers would use the weight distribution of the sling to transport the animals, which usually weighing hundreds of pounds, off the beach.

In Texas, as many as 300 strandings occur per year and are especially frequent in calving season (February and March). Throughout the more than ten years that he’s worked with the Texas Stranding Network, Fuller has rescued and worked with about a dozen or so live creatures, and remembers particularly clearly his work with a spotted dolphin named Charlie.

“I actually got to be one of the divers in the water for the release,” he said. “Coast Guard transports us out ten or 12 miles off shore, and then the divers enter the water to try to coax the dolphin out."

Fuller ended his demonstration by showing the audience how to carry the orca in the sling to safety.

“It’s amazing how much animals can tolerate,” he said, describing the process of lifting live creatures off of sandy death traps. “They could just swing their tails and knock ten people over, but they don’t.”

Five Flippin’ Interesting Facts About the Strand Network:

  • It can cost as much as $400 a day to keep a marine mammal under observation
  • Handlers often serve mammals Pedialyte (children’s medication) for hydration
  • Strand Network volunteers give mammals in rehabilitation names like Bo Jingles, Mohawk, or Dom (but only several days after being rescued, when the likelihood of survival is higher)
  • Fuller has seen mammals kept in a variety of different bodies of water for rehabilitation – including, once, a hotel swimming pool
  • Sometimes cranes are necessary to remove marine mammals from beaches

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