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CCU Atheneum: This pygmy sperm whale stranded in the middle of Myrtle Beach.
This pygmy sperm whale stranded in the middle of Myrtle Beach.

Professor assists with mammal strandings

by Mona Prufer
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Fall is the most active season for dolphin and whale strandings on the beach, which may not change your world – but it does Rob Young’s.

At any given moment, as coordinator of the South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Young might be interrupted in his marine science classroom or at his son’s soccer game with a call to go attend to a stranded dolphin or whale on a nearby beach.

“Fall is when they are migrating south,” says Young, whose academic career has centered around bottlenose dolphins. The mammals, who have summered off the shores of southern North Carolina, travel along the South Carolina coast on their way to warmer waters as the temperatures start to drop.

This year there have been more than 50 strandings already along the South Carolina coast. “We had a long cold winter, which adversely affects the food source,” says Young. “Many animals who stranded last March were emaciated and just couldn’t find enough to eat.”

Most strandings in South Carolina occur along the central and southern coast where there are larger bays and protective waters. “The Grand Strand is kind of unusual in that it affords little protection [for ill or injured animals],” says Young.

A mammal that strands on the beach “almost always dies” or has died from natural causes, says Young. “Sometimes they are newborns. About a quarter of the stranded mammals have signs of human interaction such as entanglement in nets or rope or they have ingested plastic.”

Young, who previously chaired the Department of Marine Science, recently received a $96,437 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency charged with studying and reacting to the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere. He works closely with the NOAA lab in Charleston, which responds to strandings on the south end of the state and often performs necropsies on dead animals to determine what killed them.

It’s rare to come across live stranded mammals, says Young, and in any case, there are no nearby facilities to help them. The stress of transporting would probably be too great for an ill animal, added to the lack of availability of a vehicle large enough to transport the animal if there was a facility that could help them.

Young did, however, get a call last year concerning a seal that was stranded at Peachtree Landing on the Waccamaw River, 45 miles from the ocean. “It’s rare enough to find a seal in our waters, much less one at this location,” says Young, who picked up the seal and transported him back to the ocean. “The fisherman who found him had put him in a dog crate, which made it much easier for me.”

One positive thing that comes from the strandings and subsequent necropsies is that CCU students have opportunities to get hands-on experience with tissue collection and gathering of other data on site, which would not be possible at a non-beach environment.

The stranding network, which used to be under the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), has been in operation for about 19 years.

Young’s three children, ages 4, 8 and 11, think their dad’s work with marine mammals is “pretty neat.” (Imagine the show-and-tell possibilities at school.)

Young, who has just been named interim associate provost for the Office of Grants and Sponsored Research, joined the CCU faculty in 1992. 

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