They were here centuries before us, but now their numbers are in danger because of us, and their species’ survival depends on us. Thankfully, they have scientists like Amber Kuehn in their corner.
Kuehn, a fourth-generation Bluffton resident and marine biologist, volunteers her time with both the South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network and The Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network. The two networks rely on the hard work of volunteers to collect crucial data and transport marine mammals and sea turtles that are stranded on the beach, either badly injured or already dead.
Kuehn, a volunteer with the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, no longer gets emotional but is always dismayed when she sees a sea turtle stranded or lifeless on the beach.
“Their struggle to become reproductive and keep the species alive is hard to maintain when you’re competing against humans and all the fishing practices, pleasure crafts, pollution,” said Kuehn of sea turtles, which take 20 to 25 years to become sexually mature. “A lot of the strandings are from boat strikes. When a boat takes out a sea turtle that’s been alive for 25 years, that’s a huge deal.”
The volunteers take pictures and measurements, then mark the location of the sea turtle with orange spray paint. If the sea turtle is dead, the beach patrol will come by to bury it on the beach. If it’s still alive and looks like it has a chance at survival, Kuehn will transport it to the South Carolina Aquarium's Sea Turtle Hospital in Charleston.
The stranding network is a volunteer effort through the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, though Kuehn requires her staff at Spartina Marine Education Charters to volunteer. In 2014, there were 34 reported sea turtle strandings in Beaufort County; Kuehn attended half of those and received an award in appreciation for her efforts.
In a similar manner, the mission of the South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network is to respond to marine mammal strandings along the state’s coast “in order to learn more about the species in our waters, to minimize pain and suffering of live-stranded animals, and to protect public safety and health.” The network is administered through Coastal Carolina University, under the authority of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
“The SCMMSN was looking for people to help who were already involved in the Sea Turtle Stranding Network,” Kuehn says. So she was trained to take “Level A” data —± measurements and pictures — and transport the animal when possible to Charleston. Kuehn did this seven times in 2013. “When they saw I was committed, they trained me on how to do the necropsy — which is like an autopsy, but on dolphins. I’ve done three of those.”
For the necropsies, Kuehn takes tissue samples of the dolphins’ lungs, kidneys and liver, transporting those samples, along with the dolphins’ heads, either to the Waddell Mariculture Center for freezing or, when she has time, all the way to Charleston to the Fort Johnson NOS.
All of that work is also unpaid.
“2014 was a bad year for marine mammal strandings. We had a pilot whale and a pygmy sperm whale wash up on the beach on Hilton Head,” Kuehn says.
Even if a marine mammal is still alive when a tourist or resident comes upon it, they should never try to “rescue” it by pushing it back into the water.
“If a marine mammal strands, it’s on its way out. You can’t push them out to sea. The reason they washed up is because they can’t handle being out there,” she says. “So they’re euthanized to curtail their suffering. Then a necropsy is performed, and then we bury them.”
Besides seeing more marine mammal strandings in 2014 — there were 96 in South Carolina, 89 of which were dolphins — volunteers also recorded decreased sea turtle nesting.
“We are hoping for a better year in 2015,” Kuehn says. “Meanwhile, I will be dedicated to collecting as much data for the federal and state agencies involved, so that when lawmaking measures require data to push legislation, I will know that I did all that I could to help some of the most beautiful and inspiring animals on the planet.”
All stranding sightings – both sea turtle and marine mammal -- should be reported to the 24-hour stranding hotline at 800-922-5431. Here’s what you can do to help:
1. Call the hotline and report the stranding.
2. Take pictures.
3. Do not touch the animal, and keep others away.
4. If the animal is still alive, do not push it back out to sea.