Riverhead Foundation fully rehabs harbor porpoise

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Noodle, a 2-year-old harbor porpoise, was successfully rehabilitated by the Riverhead Foundation after being found in a marsh in Brunswick, Maine by children on a school field trip in October.

The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation is planning the release of its third successfully rehabilitated porpoise, a small toothed whale.

Noodle, the 2-year-old harbor porpoise, was found in a marsh in Brunswick Maine by children on a school field trip in October 2012, about a week before Hurricane Sandy knocked the East Coast.

Marine Mammals of Maine responded to the marooned porpoise, helping transport it to the University of New England Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center in Portland where it was stabilized.

The young male porpoise was unable to float by itself during the first 24-hours of its rescue, so researchers used foam noodles to build a makeshift flotation device to keep him afloat. The modified floaties earned him the name, Noodle.

“His only chance was to get transferred to us,” said Julika Wocial, rescue program supervisor for the Riverhead Foundation, which plans to release Noodle Sunday.

The Riverhead nonprofit is home to the only long-term rehabilitation tank large enough for Noodle in the region.

“It’s like having one hospital bed from Virginia to Maine,” said Robert DiGiovanni Jr., executive director and senior biologist for the foundation.

With the help of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Noodle took a six-hour-long trip from Portland to Riverhead, cradled in a stretcher and soft foam to keep him comfortable. The Cross Sound Ferry let him across free of charge, and Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut stayed on standby in case anything went wrong.

“His story was gratifying in that there were three other organizations involved in his rescue,” Mr. DiGiovanni said. “It is kind of rare that we get a porpoise that is able to be rehabilitated.”

Usually this type of marine animal is found in grave condition, unable to be saved, he said.

Since the foundations’ start in 1980, then known as Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation, it has rescued more than 4,300 marine animals. They currently rehabilitate about 200 animals a year on average.

The foundation is the only animal rescue foundation in the state, and receives about 20 phone calls of marine animal sightings a day during the high season.

Rehabilitating the animals costs upward of $10,000 for seals, $15,000 for sea turtles, and $80,000 for dolphins and porpoises, like Noodle.

“We usually work on a deficit,” Mr. DiGiovanni said.

The foundation also works on a marine animal survey, doing aerial studies to monitor and count marine species in the area.

“People may not realize, but there have been sightings of humpback whales within miles of our shores,” Ms. Wocial said. “We want people to report any and all sightings to us.”

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