Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Marine scientists on the Alabama Gulf Coast who work with marine mammals were beaming last week as the ribbon was cut on the new Marine Mammal Center at Dauphin Island Sea Lab.

In the past, when stranded marine mammals were studied and necropsied, it was done under tents that were pitched to keep the scientists out of the blazing sun but offered little relief from the heat and insects attracted to the decomposing animals.

Ditch the tent: They’re moving on up to the inside. The new facility will give those scientists state-of-the-art technology to study species like the West Indian manatee and the bottlenose dolphin, an animal that has suffered a significant increase in mortality in the past five years.

Dr. Ruth Carmichael of the Sea Lab traveled around the country and cherry-picked ideas from other marine research facilities to design the Marine Mammal Center.

“We’re all very excited about the opportunities and capabilities this facility is going to provide us to enhance marine mammal stranding response, but also to enhance research and education opportunities here at the Sea Lab,” Carmichael said.

Carmichael explained what this facility means to the state of Alabama: The Gulf of Mexico is home to up to 29 species of marine mammals, which means the Gulf ranks in the top 25 percent for marine mammals in the world.

“Despite this, we’re among the least studied of any place in the world,” she said. “If you look at it, these are enormous animals. They are large consumers. They feed everywhere from the base of the food web all the way up to some of them being top predators. Because they move around, it necessarily is going to affect adjacent ecosystems. So that is very important to our coastal ecosystem.

“Another thing that is an important point to consider is they are the closest analogs to humans that we have in the oceans. So we understand what affects them, what stresses them, what may cause them harm or injury. That may help us better understand human health risks in the environment as well.”

Carmichael said that back in 2007, when she first worked with a stranded West Indian manatee at the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she never imagined it would develop into the Marine Mammal Stranding Network or the ongoing tagging studies of manatees.

“At that time, I figured it would be a one-off thing. I would collect a little bit of data and move on,” she said. “I had no idea of the extreme data gap that existed in our region for any marine mammal. And I certainly never imagined how this need for data would grow in the last few years.”

Carmichael said in the 100 years prior to 2007, only six manatee fatalities were reported in the state of Alabama. Since 2007, there have been nine manatee fatalities, and there were three live-animal strandings last winter alone.

“That means we went from less than one manatee fatality per decade to more than one a year here in Alabama alone,” she said. “That doesn’t include what’s been going on in Mississippi. To put this in perspective with bottlenose dolphins, since 2010 we have been in and continue to be in the longest-running mortality events for bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico’s history. We’ve had more than 1,000 animals die, 200 in Alabama.

“What that means for us in operating the Marine Mammals Stranding Network and being interested in causes of death, is that the number of animals that we’ve had to respond to since 2010 is double what they were prior to 2010. That’s huge.”

Carmichael said the state of Alabama has also recognized the need for increased data and the need for an increase in stranding response.

“That support has been in the form of funding the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and also the support for the building of this facility, helping us build capacity to improve stranding response, but also to have more robust science and informed decision-making,” she said.

“I want to thank the state of Alabama and all our supporters for providing a strong foundation for ongoing marine mammal stranding response. I think we can all see how marine mammals serve as charismatic ambassadors for science and conservation. We also need to recognize that these animals are  an important part of our history and heritage here in Alabama. We’re really excited about being able to collect this information and data that we can share for generations to come.”

State Lands Director Patti Powell told the grand-opening crowd she was representing the other divisions of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr.

“I’m also here on behalf of Gov. (Robert) Bentley,” said Powell, who helped the Sea Lab procure funding for the project through the Governor’s Office. “What our Department has done is because of the Governor’s support of our efforts. We are thrilled and excited to be a part of this center.”

Powell also said Dr. Carmichael’s tenacity was crucial to the state in obtaining the $1 million in funding to build the facility.

Noel Wingers, coordinator of Alabama's Marine Mammal Stranding Network, gave guests at the ribbon-cutting a quick tour of the facility.

The main examination room is equipped with walk-in coolers, two stainless steel examination tables and a heavy-duty electric hoist that rolls along a steel beam to transport the large marine mammals from a vehicle outside the facility onto one of the examination tables, one of which is specifically designed for manatee research.

Wingers said during the past five years, besides having to literally pitch tents to collect samples from stranded marine mammals, marine scientists have had no access to walk-in coolers. They have had to transport stranded marine mammals to any facility available, like fire departments, to pack the animals in ice to preserve the integrity of the data collection.

“So this is huge,” Wingers said. “I’m very excited.”

Carmichael added, “This facility is mainly going to be dedicated to marine mammal strandings, but it will provide a clean lab and dedicated analytical facility. So if we do collect data from those live animals as part of our tagging studies, we will be able to process data in this building. We’ll also be able to process biological samples. It’s an additional perk to have this facility that is designed for stranding response to benefit our other ongoing programs.”

PHOTOS: (David Rainer) Dr. Ruth Carmichael welcomes visitors to the grand opening of the Marine Mammal Center at Dauphin Island Sea Lab with distinguished guests (left to right) Eliska Morgan of the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, Dr. John Valentine of the Sea Lab and Patti Powell of the State Lands Division. Noel Wingers, the Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator at the Sea Lab, explains the features of the new center, including the examination tables designed for specific species, like the one with side cutaways for the West Indian manatee.