When a young Bob Schoelkopf was working as a marine animal trainer 34 years ago at an aquarium on Atlantic City's Steel Pier - and despising how the creatures were kept in captivity - his "aha moment" came when a dying whale washed up on the beach and he was asked to care for it. There was no one else to call.

In the two days that Schoelkopf sat nursing the animal before it died, he formulated a plan for a kind of antiaquarium to respond to marine mammal strandings up and down the coast.

Inquirer Jersey Shore reporter Jacqueline L. Urgo spoke with Schoelkopf about the venerable nonprofit Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, which he directs with his wife, Sheila Dean. The center has responded to more than 3,800 strandings of whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles that have washed ashore since 1978.

Question: What is the biggest issue facing the Marine Mammal Stranding Center today? 

Bob Schoelkopf: We have 1,800 miles of beaches and back bays in New Jersey that we cover. The biggest issue is the increase in the number of animals and types of animals we see coming onto the beaches in recent years.

There is clearly some change in the climate that is moving the currents and bringing various animals we haven't seen before and an abundance of them we haven't seen before. We've never seen so many harp seals in one year, for example. Manatees were never seen this far north before, and now they are.

Q: What does that increase in the number and type of animals in general do to your funding picture for a given year? 

Schoelkopf: Most of our funding comes from private donations, fund-raisers, or endowments. We operate on about $600,000 a year. We get about $45,000 of that from the state from the sale of conservation and wildlife license plates, but that's the only public money we see.

One of the things we do is have an "Adopt-a-Seal" program to raise money to pay for the rescue and rehabilitation of seals before we release them back into the wild. We have a new "Adopt-a-Manatee" program after seeing manatee strandings this far north in recent years, and we needed to buy a $1,500 net so we're equipped to deal with them.

Q: How many paid employees do you have and how many volunteers? 

Schoelkopf: We operate with about a half-dozen paid employees, including three trained technicians who take care of the animals when they are on site for rehab, like the one harp seal and 17 gray seals we have right now. Besides a secretary/bookkeeper, we also have an education coordinator who plays an important role in working with school education programs and in our on-site summer camp programs and our museum. We also have about 300 volunteers who are trained to assist us with stranding, recoveries, and other tasks.

Q: What is the largest stranding you remember over the last three decades?

Schoelkopf: The biggest stranding we dealt with was in 1987, when 90 dolphins washed up on the Jersey Shore over a period of 21/2 months. This was an unprecedented number of deaths among marine mammals, and everyone thought it was caused by an algae bloom or something like that.

Then red sores started showing up on people who had been swimming in the ocean. It was finally determined that the infections and the dolphin deaths were being caused by something called the morbillivirus, which hadn't been documented in aquatic mammals before then.

Q: Tell us about your latest big stranding. 

Schoelkopf: A 29-foot humpback whale washed up [dead] on Island Beach State Park on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. It had been first spotted in Barnegat Inlet the day before as a floater. We performed an extensive necropsy and determined from scarring it had died from being hit by a boat.

Q: How important to your organization is the help of the public in rescuing or recovering these animals? 

Schoelkopf: We appreciate it when the public lets us know they have spotted an animal in distress. But we always remind them that these are wild animals and people should never touch or provoke the animal in any way. In fact, that's against the law. What they should do is call the local police and the police will contact us, and then we can be dispatched to help the animal.

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