Dolphins and Tigers and Rays – Oh My!

Hello, my Florida followers!

I have been here two weeks and still love every minute!  I started work on the 19th with a rousing morning of safety videos (such as “How to Use a Fire Extinguisher”) and lovely lab videos that began:  “Picture a lab where nothing is labeled and all chemicals are the same color…” and then explained ways to prevent blowing myself (and half of Florida) up!

The first day of work was good, though.  I met the people I would be working with and, while two other interns are here now, one left today and the other leaves in a week.  Soon I will be on my own.  Everyone is really nice and I felt at home right away.

I've made a lot of new friends in Florida so far.

The first part of the week was full of learning what I will do on a daily basis, figuring out where things were, and learning about the paperwork and data entry that power the operation.  I also learned some of the techniques that we do, like flensing (removing all meat and blubber from bones) and boiling bones to clean them.  Flensing is done in the lab after necropsies.  We save all the humorous bones of the sea turtles that have died in order to properly age them as part of the records for strandings, which gives us an idea of what is happening to the population and what kinds of animals get stranded or die.  It’s interesting and I’m happy I took anatomy!  I can also say that my knife skills are quickly sharpening (sorry – that one was too easy!).

It was a slow week, which was good because it gave me a chance to learn the little details rather than getting thrown into the grind.  Also, in some ways it is good when we don’t get calls because that means animals are not getting beached, injured, or dying.  As a newbie, however, I was anxious to get into the field and know how a strandings call worked – wearing my official Mote Marine Strandings  Investigations shirt, of course!

Little did I know what was to come…

Friday morning was the normal routine – data entry, then we were flensing some bones when the call I had been waiting for came in!  It was a beached dolphin – the first one since the previous September.  So we headed out to the beach and found the animal.  It was clearly dead and had washed ashore, but this was a big boy and it wasn’t going to be easy to get him up the beach and into the truck.  After documenting everything we needed to, we loaded the 475 pound (!) dolphin onto the sled (similar to a child’s) and towed him up the beach.

The fruits of my dive labors (or rather, the teeth).

It took five of us to get him off the beach and over the boardwalk, but luckily there weren’t too many gawkers since we were on a private area of beach.  We transported him back to Mote to perform a necropsy (animal autopsy).  The process of measuring, taking samples for histology, and disarticulating the skeleton (we save the skeletons for the bone museum here) took six hours but was one of the coolest things I have been a part of!

It was like everything you expect to see in a human – only supersized! (Just so you know, dolphins do have big hearts!)  While most people might be tired after pulling a 12 hour day, though, I spent the whole night on the beach turtle tagging, which was one of those “I never thought I would be here” experiences.  We tagged, measured, and recorded data from seven loggerhead sea turtles nesting on the beach.  That was one of the most amazing days of my life – what an awesome week in Florida!

There's nothing like catching the hometown team when you're away from home - especially with friends.

Needless to say, I spent the weekend making up for lost sleep and going to the beach.  I even went snorkeling and found a bunch of shells, a shark tooth, and a 4 inch dive knife!

The following work week was a little less intense. We received a few calls – mostly about turtles that were long dead and had washed ashore.  I did, however, make it out on Wednesday to watch the Detroit Tigers game in Tampa.  We got a little lost on the way there (thanks to my GPS!) but made it for most of the game.

(Note to anyone traveling in Florida – stock your car with plenty of extra change!  Not having money at toll booths is not a good thing!  Luckily we found some spare quarters buried beneath the seats.)

Unfortunately the Tigers lost, but it was still a lot of fun!  Suffice to say, I am having a great time here!

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