2013 February 13 & March 12
Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, Gulfport, MS
We’ve learned a great deal from some recent visits to Moby Solangi’s Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in Gulfport, MS. Moby has spent considerable time with us showing us around all of the facilities and answering many questions. Some of our questions arose originally because of a request of us from Moby to help transport two orphan sea lion pups from California to IMMS. Those two young female sea lions -- “K.T.” and “Sage”-- are now safely and happily ensconced at IMMS, thanks to FedEx, a private jet, and much careful work by many. While we did not support the accomplishment of this transport, Moby’s request gave us the opportunity to look closely at IMMS for ourselves and to ask many pointed questions about past, present, and planned activities regarding captive marine mammals at IMMS and elsewhere.
We are very favorably impressed with the facilities and professional care that has been provided at IMMS for the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned, stranded, and non-releasable dolphins, sea turtles, and sea lions. We also are pleased with the quality of public education being provided to groups of elementary and high school students and other interested public. We came to understand why all dolphins and sea lions currently at IMMS are unlikely to be able to survive successfully on their own in the wild, even if they could be trained to hunt for themselves. All of the rescued animals at IMMS appear to be regaining and maintaining their best possible health and psychological states under their captive conditions.
We think that it is vital that the public receive correct and sufficient information about IMMS, its animals, its current mission, and Moby’s vision for its future. At this critical time when the Gulf states are working hard to restore the coastal wetlands, islands, beaches, and waters after the BP disaster of 2010 April, funding priorities are an important and much discussed topic. Should monies go into a larger facility than IMMS in order to provide public education displays of marine mammals in a more wide-reaching way than can be done now? Moby thinks so. He would like to add to the non-profit IMMS a non-profit public aquarium, conveniently located so as to be self-sustaining financially and able to support research through IMMS to broaden our understanding of marine mammals’ behaviors, physiology, and intelligence. He envisions research and an aquarium working closely together. Researchers would benefit enormously from available first-hand knowledge about the dolphins from the animals and from the trainers, and the trainers would have much better opportunities to transition into research and education work. When asked why IMMS as it exists now could not fill this model, Moby explained that IMMS is designed for school children to learn and for graduate students in science and veterinary medicine to work, but it is too small and not in a good location to be a successful, popular public display facility. He feels that a larger aquarium, which would help support the research mission of IMMS, would also bring more tourism to Mississippi and an increased appreciation for and understanding of marine mammals to all Gulf coast visitors.
Moby makes several additional passionate arguments for having an aquarium in Mississippi. People visit the Gulf coast largely to experience the vast marine life that thrive here in the shallow, warm, nutrient-rich waters. Even if all visitors could take a boat trip with responsible dolphin touring companies, they will not necessarily see dolphins closely, and they almost certainly will not get close looks at sea turtles, manta rays, small sharks, and many other fascinating species of marine life. The presence of marine animals is season-dependent, and boat trips are weather-dependent. But an aquarium brings many kinds of marine animals to one place, where people can see, hear, even touch them. This multi-sensory experience is extremely powerful for inspiring memory and appreciation for these animals, which are key to encouraging a lasting commitment to stewardship for these animals and for all ocean ecosystems. Aquariums and zoos have longsince provided this vital service to human beings, by making people of all ages aware of the variety of wildlife that exists throughout our world, in a way that is vastly more influential to their psyches than books and videos can be. Moby argues that the Gulf coast, and the planet, need a commitment of stewardship from humans more now than ever before. He feels that an aquarium in Mississippi, responsibly operated with excellent care of the animals, would be a boon to the Gulf coast, to the Gulf of Mexico wildlife, and to ocean wildlife worldwide.
Another interesting argument from Moby for having a well-run aquarium in MS hits home for those of us who have been fighting to have the federal government take more steps and better precautions to protect the Gulf coast. For many decdes, Gulf coast states have been tapped for their resources but not sufficiently appreciated and supported for the value and beauty of those resources. This will change only when enough citizens value the Gulf for its marine life and beauty and demand that the federal government respond with appropriate support for protection of the Gulf coast marine environment. A well-operated aquarium that belongs to Mississippi will help educate the public about the value of the Gulf ecosystem and its marine life and the importance of protecting and sustaining it.
We present to you here a total of ten videos that we took while visiting IMMS in February and March of this year. Supporting information about the facilities and the animals is included below. We encourage all who have a genuine interest and regard for marine mammals and the Gulf of Mexico to contact IMMS and find a time when you can join one of their many tours, to see the animals and facilities and listen to their staff and watch them interact with the animals in the course of their daily activities. We’d love to hear about your responses, positive or negative, and we’re happy to try to help you get answers to your questions.
To indulge briefly in an editorial comment: For us, the jury is still out on whether a larger aquarium such as Moby envisions could be salutary for its animals, serve these research and educational purposes, and be financially self-sustaining as Moby envisions. We are adamantly opposed to the capture of healthy wild marine mammals for human entertainment (and almost any other purpose). While marine mammals who cannot survive in the wild and who require human support to live may have to endure limited-size tanks and diets of frozen fish, the stimulation and interaction which they also need in order to thrive may not be compatible with demanding regular public entertainment routines. Is it possible to provide a sufficiently nourishing, stimulating, and healthy life for rescued marine animals and still serve all these purposes of public education and financial income? We fully endorse the excellent care and support being provided for the marine mammals now healing and living at IMMS. Because of their past injuries, permanently compromised health, or lack of wild experience, these animals cannot and should not be released to the wild. With lots of positive human interaction but few performance demands and a quiet, non-stressful environment, it seems that IMMS is an ideal place for these animals, and an ideal place for students, researchers, and interested citizens to learn about these animals. But can these ideals and high standards of care for the animals be extended to a larger, public display aquarium? If so, we agree that humans, animals, and the Gulf coast could all benefit significantly.
Now, on to the animals and the IMMS facilities, in modest but honest home video format! We start with six videos from our first visit to IMMS on Wednesday, February 13, 2013. These are followed by four videos from a second visit to IMMS on March 12, 2013, in which we re-visited the dolphin “Apollo” and met the new young female sea lions “K.T.” and “Sage.”
In this Part 1 (of 6), we see the "museum" and some of the first education and "hands-on" areas for visitors coming to learn about ocean animals and Gulf marine life. From here we move outside and start to see some of the elaborate workings behind this facility, starting with how they take ordinary seawater from the Gulf of Mexico, filter it, adjust its salinity and other chemistry to optimize it for the animals and to assure that it has minimal levels of bacteria or other pollutants (similar to what is done for public drinking water), and distribute it to their tanks. Recirculation and water quality monitoring goes on constantly, 24 hours per day 7 days per week, and the water is changed if and when necessary. In the course of this recirculation, the entire contents of each tank is completely changed out three to four times every 24 hours.
In this Part 2 (of 6), Moby shows us the complicated "plumbing" that maintains clean, natural Gulf sea water for the marine animals here at IMMS. (See notes from Video 1 above). And then we get to meet our first dolphins! Here are a male and female, “Buster” and “Bo.” Moby captured these two dolphins, with others, from Mississippi Gulf waters in the 1980s, for the US Navy. (Bo was caught 1984 August 30, Buster 1987 July 16, according to the IMMS database.) They went for “training” to San Diego, CA and were likely used to locate and clear underwater mines, recover equipment, and find divers. Bo and Buster also spent some time at Sea Life Park in Oahu, Hawaii. Bo and Buster have been at IMMS for about two years now. Moby estimates them both to be about 31-32 years old and says that they can be expected to live to be 40-45 years in captivity. The staff watch them carefully and in coming years will expect to see subtle signs of aging, like those that humans exhibit -- swimming more slowly, compromised vision and hearing, sensitivity to diet, and so on. Bo may have had some babies while with the US Navy, but now she is too old to breed. Female dolphins generally breed every two to three years, as it takes about two years for a dolphin baby to be weaned. We asked if Bo and Buster ever fight (the answer was No), and if they spend most of their time together (the answer was that sometimes they are together and sometimes they use different parts of the pool).
After this, we meet the famous "Chance", who was rescued in late November 2011 when his parents and pod stranded on the Alabama coast. He is about three years old now and will reach maturity at about age six or seven. When the IMMS staff rescued Chance, he had been lying on the beach for 6-7 hours, had pneumonia, was covered with parasites inside and out, and had bad skin issues. They also discovered soon that two or three of Chance’s vertebrae were injured. As a result of this spinal injury, Chance does not use his pectoral fins or his flukes (tail) well, so he’s not a strong swimmer. Further, his hearing is not very good. While dolphins rely on sonar (echo location), not hearing, for navigation, hearing is essential for communication.
Chance is generally a very nervous animal, afraid of things, afraid of change. He takes a relatively long time to become accustomed to new situations or to form a bond with human or other dolphins. IMMS staff have brought Chance back to health and "fattened him up" considerably, but the spinal and hearing issues make it unlikely that he could survive in the wild. He simply could not swim fast or far enough to hunt for himself or escape predators. Wild dolphins must swim 30 or more miles per day to find food. In the large tanks at IMMS, Chance can swim and exercise safely, but he will never need to exert himself in a way that he could be hurt. Chance was in his own tank during this visit, as his trainers were about to work with him. We watched Chance interacting with the trainers. He seemed quite happy, playing with toys on his own (floating footballs and the like) and interacting very willingly with the people. They told us that Chance has been a “slow learner” but that he is gentle and tractable.
Generally, Chance and Bo and Buster are free to come and go among their tanks, and they get along fine together, there being no aggression toward him from Bo or Buster. Chance has been slow to develop a bond, because of his innate fearful personality, so that may take more time. Moby explained that dolphins from different areas may speak different “languages.” But with Chance being from Alabama and Bo and Buster being from Mississippi, they are probably fairly similar. He also said that the bond Chance has developed with his human trainers has helped him open up and relax quite a bit.
What about possible future release of any of these dolphins back to the Gulf and to freedom? Bo and Buster are the only dolphins now at IMMS who do not have health issues that preclude living on their own at sea. But Bo and Buster have lived captive lives for over 25 years. Even a strong and healthy dolphin faces daunting challenges when re-introduced to the wild. Even just a couple of months after being separated from his (or her) pod in the wild, the odds are against him finding or being accepted back into his former pod. He may face aggression from other dolphins if he tries to join a pod, even if it his own former pod. Further, predation from sharks is a serious threat, particularly in the vulnerable first hours that a dolphin returns to the sea. (Recall the sad circumstance in Clearwater, Florida in the summer of 2009 when “Dunham” was released to sea, only to be killed by sharks almost immediately.)
In this Part 3 (of 6), we get an "inside look" at what the dolphins are fed, which is mostly herring and capelin fish. We watched a student group who was visiting and learning firsthand how to choose fish for the dolphins, which they will feed them soon after. We also get to meet another rescued dolphin "Apollo", whom IMMS rescued off the coast of Louisiana.
Apollo stranded himself near Grand Isle, LA about five months ago. He was first brought to the Audubon aquarium in New Orleans, where he was treated and deemed non-releasable, and then transferred to IMMS. He is about two years old now. When they rescued him, he was lying on the levees and was completely sunburned, most of his skin having peeled off. Even now, with most of his skin healed, he still shows some deep scarring from that sunburn. Worst of all, though, is that Apollo is completely deaf. IMMS had the US Navy come with their special equipment to determine dolphin hearing capability, and they confirmed this. This means that he is unable to communicate with other dolphins normally. He continues to have serious issues with his digestive system, which suggest that he was never properly weaned, and he suffers from some chronic deficiencies, probably since very early in his life. But his health overall is fairly good now, and he is becoming well socialized with his human trainers. Because he is deaf, the trainers have taught Apollo to understand hand signals instead of sounds. Like all dolphins at IMMS, Apollo spends quite a bit of time interacting with a variety of trainers, throughout each day, not at any set times, sometimes with food and sometimes just with toys. They will introduce Apollo to Bo and Buster in the coming weeks. After that, they’ll introduce him to Chance and let the “young boys” develop a bond. (Apparently that works well, at least until some young female dolphins enter the picture!) A second video of Apollo was taken on March 12 and is included below (Video 7).
Next, we got to see the new home for the California sea lions who are coming to IMMS within the next month. (As of March 8, both have arrived -- a young male and female.Their three videos and descriptions are provided below.) We also got to see the sea turtles who have been rescued. We met a 250-lb 30-year-old loggerhead who had suffered serious damage to three of her four flippers. IMMS staff cleaned her up and removed all of the oil and barnacles and parasites, and she is doing well here. She cannot be released, for obvious reasons, but she has a happy permanent home.
Moby then took us to IMMS' full veterinary hospital for aquatic animals. They have a full-time veterinarian and three contract veterinarians. The facilities appear to be excellent. Researchers were at work in most of the offices, using microscopes. He showed us the surgery rooms and facilities. They do surgeries at least a couple of times per month -- on birds (their own birds, including many exotics), turtles, and other marine animals. We saw their necropsy room, where they performed many of the procedures to help understand what happened to the dying dolphins and sea turtles in the Gulf over the past few years. There are faculty at local universities who work with IMMS. Next we visited their 24/7 rescue facilities. They have several large tanks that are constantly ready to take on any new dolphin requiring rescue. The sides to these tanks are soft, so that the animals cannot hurt themselves by bumping the sides. We also saw their rescue boats, which also are maintained ready 24/7 for duty.
20120213, Wednesday: On Wings Of Care visits Moby Solangi and his Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, MS. In this Part 4 (of 6), we saw the smaller sea turtles that have regained their health and recovered from serious injuries, not the least of which are from multiple fishing hooks. These turtles are released when possible; when not, as when their flippers are destroyed, they are tended well for the duration of their lives. We also saw several more tanks they have that are kept ready 24/7 for any dolphins rescued and needing care. Then we saw the dormitory facilities for visiting students and the rescue boats they have for dolphins and turtles.
20120213, Wednesday: On Wings Of Care visits Moby Solangi and his Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, MS. In this Part 5 (of 6), we watched one of the many small "classes" provided to the visiting public and students. Here the two older dolphins "Bo" and "Buster" (female and male) were interacting with the students and the trainers, while another trainer gave a lecture. (See notes under Video 2 about Bo and Buster.) Bo and Buster use their large olympic-sized pool fully and and appear to enjoy their interactions with the trainers and human visitors very much. You’ll see here where the trainers use a method called positive reinforcement to encourage desired behavior while ignoring (rather than punishing) undesired behavior. They use a whistle to communicate to the dolphins when they're doing desired behaviors (this is called “bridging”), and they sometimes also reward desired behavior with food (fish - herring or capelin, generally). (Recall from Video 3 that because Apollo is deaf, they bridge his behaviors with visual or tactile stimuli.) Desired activities include things that the trainers might need to do, such as lie still so that the trainer can inspect the dolphin's fluke (where they might have to inject medicines, for example), and so on. You'll see these behaviors in the video. Bo and Buster can do jumps and tricks, but they are not asked to do these except when they show an interest in being more active, and then only with particular trainers who are very experienced, so that the dolphins don’t hurt themselves in their enthusiasm.
20120213, Wednesday: On Wings Of Care visits Moby Solangi and his Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, MS. In this Part 6 (of 6), we witnessed an explanation from one of the senior trainers and Moby, describing some work they've been doing with Bo and Buster on their "breaches" and "bows." We were pleased to see the great care the trainers take with these animals. Overall, we were relieved to see the excellent care, trainers, and facilities for the animals and to understand better why animals like "Chance" have not been returned to the wild after his rescue. Moby told us that it takes a few days for the wild animals to get used to taking dead fish for food. Then we talked a bit about the two orphan sea lion females he would be receiving from CA in the coming few weeks. (As of Mar 10, "K.T." and "Sage" are happily ensconced in their new home at IMMS. More on that in VIdeos 8--10 from our visit to IMMS March 12, 2013!)
Today we were at IMMS to meet the new sea lions, but we passed by Apollo’s tank and stopped quickly to visit him one more time. This is when we learned that he’ll be introduced to Bo and Buster in the coming days. (See Video 3 above for more information about the young dolphin named Apollo.)
20130312 - On Wings Of Care visits IMMS in Gulfport, MS to see the young female sea lion orphans who recently came to IMMS from two different stranding centers in California. (This is the first of three videos.) "Sage" is the larger one on the right as you look at these two beautiful girls. Sage was found lying on a beach in southern California only about 12 hours after her birth, with her umbilical cord still attached. A stranding center raised her and weaned her before transporting her a few days ago to IMMS.
"K.T." is the smaller girl on the left. K.T. has been at the marine mammal stranding center in Sausalito, CA for the past 4-5 months of her life, before coming to IMMS a few days ago. She was founded stranded alone, apparently an abandoned pup. Both girls eat mostly fish now (herring and capelin, primarily); Sage can eat a fish whole, while K.T. still needs to have it cut up into smaller pieces. Both have their diets supplemented with vitamin and mineral tablets, to compensate for not having had their mother’s milk for a full six to seven months when growing up.
K.T. jumped up on her crate to watch Sage and Bonny interact. Both girls have learned about humans and socializing only in the past two weeks of their young lives. They have adapted quickly and very positively to their new surroundings and to their human caretakers. They are comfortable, unstressed, social, curious, and more. In the next video, you'll see them interact with a trainer who comes to work with them. You'll see Rick let K.T. out into the open area. She follows him happily and like he was a parent. We were very pleased with how healthy, content, and well-adjusted these animals seem. Shortly after we left that day, they were going to be put into the large (roughly 500 square feet) enclosure with a pool that is adjacent to these two holding areas.
IMMS hopes to receive more non-releasable sea lions to join Sage and K.T., both males and females. Gradually, one at a time, they will introduce the sea lions to the dolphins and eventually let them be together. Sea lions generally live together in rookeries, each group having several males who establish their hierarchy. Sea lions can be expected to live 20-25 years. Females become able to breed at about five years of age and can breed until they are 10-15 years old. Males reach breeding maturity a bit sooner, at about four to five years old.
20130312 - On Wings Of Care visits IMMS in Gulfport, MS to see the young female sea lion orphans who recently came to IMMS from two different stranding centers in CA. In this Part 2 (of 3), we watched the two pups playing in their separate holding areas. Lots of talking, swimming, jumping out to look at us and talk to us. Sage is larger and a bit more playful and outgoing than smaller K.T. They were very interested in us, very comfortable. They are also clearly very young and naive. Moby assured us that had they been released to the wild, they would have been eaten by predators (sharks) very quickly. Instead, they'll have long, healthy, pampered lives interacting with each other and with humans, and possibly some more sea lion orphans that Moby hopes will join K.T. and Sage at IMMS in years to come.
20130312 - On Wings Of Care visits IMMS in Gulfport, MS to see the young female sea lion orphans who recently came to IMMS from two different stranding centers in CA. In this Part 3 (of 3), we got to see K.T. come out and interact with trainer Rick. All training is done by positive reinforcement: if K.T. does something desired she gets a treat, if what she is doing is acceptable behavior, she gets a "click." If she does something less than acceptable, she gets ignored (or distracted and stopped, if it is something unsafe). This little pup is clearly having a good time and enjoying this whole session!