Marine Mammal Rescuer Caroline Carter ’19 Introduces Her Patients
In two months, Premie — the Marine Mammals of Maine’s youngest rehab patient — has gained a bit of blubber and has shed her fuzzy newborn fur for the sleek dark grey pelt of adult seals.
But despite the five-a-day feedings, first of milk-based formula and then a ground-up “fish smoothie,” and regular swims in a little pool to gain strength, the two-month-old is progressing slowly. “We have to take it day by day because she was prematurely born,” Caroline Carter ’19 said.
Premie was perhaps abandoned by her mother. Someone on shore or out at sea noticed her — a skinny mound of fur with big black eyes — and called a hotline for a marine mammal rescue service.
“We got her within twenty-four hours of when she was born,” Carter said. She still had her newborn “lanugo” fur, usually shed in utero. “It has been interesting trying to teach her how to hunt for fish and stabilize her health.” If Premie can reach twenty-five kilograms — which she is on track to do by this fall or winter — her rescuers will release her back into the environment.
Carter is an intern this summer at Marine Mammals of Maine’s triage and short-term care center in Harpswell. The most common marine mammals needing the nonprofit’s help in the early part of the summer are harbor seal pups, and then by mid-summer, seal weanlings.
Harbor seal pupping season begins around May, overlapping with the start of tourist and boating season. For good and bad, although mostly bad, this leads to an increase in human-seal interactions, and so more rescue calls.
Boaters who spot a lone harbor pup on a beach might incorrectly assume it is orphaned and try to help it, scaring off its mother who is fishing nearby. Or they just can’t resist the whiskered, round-eyed appeal of the animals. “They’re so cute; it’s part of the problem. People want to touch them, play with them. But they’re wild animals,” Carter said. “If people left them alone, we’d have far fewer seals in the facility.” Seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and people can be fined up to $10,000 if they do not stay more than 150 feet away from an ocean mammal.
On the other hand, a harbor seal pup injured by a boat, shark, or illness is likely to get noticed and gain the sympathy of a boater or beach walker, leading to a prompt rescue.
The Marine Mammals of Maine, which is responsible for all marine mammal and sea turtle rescues from Kittery to Rockland, depends on its interns and volunteers to help respond to hundreds of annual calls about stranded dolphins, whales, porpoises, seals, and sea turtles. It runs on a shoestring budget, relying on donations and fundraising, and cannot pay its interns.
To support herself this summer, Carter has a funded internship grant from Bowdoin Career Planning. She is one of seventy-eight students this year awarded one of these funds, which enable students to pursue summer opportunities without worrying about money. “It’s been, honestly, such a blessing, to get this grant,” she said. “It’s allowed me to dive headfirst into the internship because I don’t have to try to find another job, which would have been really hard given how unpredictable the schedule is.”
So Carter is working fifty-hour weeks, and doing it all: performing seal necropsies to identify causes of death, educating the public about seals, feeding pups, helping to administer medicine and IV fluids, transporting stabilized seals to bigger rehabilitation centers in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and releasing healthy seals back into the wild.
“It’s been such a dream, it’s so cool working here,” she said. Carter, who grew up in Lexington, Mass., about twenty minutes from the ocean, said she chose to study at Bowdoin for its ocean proximity and its marine biology program. She completed the Bowdoin Marine Science Semester in 2016.
“The thing I love so much about the ocean is that everything is literally connected — because it is one body of water,” she said. The job she has this summer is, in her eyes, a vital part of sustaining the ocean environment. “Marine mammals are a really important part of the marine ecosystem. Without the seals, dolphins and whales in the water, it would drastically change that ecosystem.” And, she said, seals are an indicator species for environmental changes that could be damaging other species.
“But I’m biased,” she added with a smile, “because I love marine mammals so much.”