Early Monday morning on February 3, Steve Burton was heading into work after vacation when he received an unexpected call from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A baby sperm whale washed ashore on Palm Beach and died shortly thereafter. As director of the marine mammal rescue program at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, NOAA asked if his team could help. “That’s what makes the job exciting, I might have something planned but then get a call and everything can change,” he says. “I love it here; every day is different.”
Marine mammals can wind up stranded on beaches for myriad reasons, such as being sick and unable to swim, entangled, starving, or disoriented. Burton and his team respond to those stranded animals along a 70-mile stretch of coastline along Indian, St. Lucie and Martin Counties. Upon reaching the animal, what the team does depends on coordination with NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, the condition of the animal and their size. In cases where the mammal is alive and able to be transported, it will get taken to a facility for treatment and possible rehabilitation back into the wild. If the animal is dead, the veterinarian will lead an examination — called a necropsy, like an autopsy for humans — either right there on the beach or back at the lab to try and determine the cause of death. They might also collect tissue samples from organs for various research projects by scientists, like understanding toxins in the environment. “Our role as responders is to get them in and do necropsy with our veterinarian. We are certified to handle the animal,”
While it can be difficult to see dolphins and whales dead or sick, Burton focuses on the positive stories and what can be learned from each carcass. The best cases, he says, are when the team gets to disentangle live animals caught up in rope or fishing line and then released back to the wild. “Sometimes you’ll see that animal six months later and thriving.”
Burton grew up in Southern California, and always loved animals. But, his fascination watching dolphins and sea lions while surfing fueled his career path. He earned a bachelor of arts in environmental science from Hawaii Pacific University. He spent 14 years in Hawaii gaining hands-on experience with dolphins and sea lions working as an animal trainer and also on the marine mammal rescue team. In 2010, he came to FAU first as the coordinator for the stranding program and then later as the Director of Stranding and Population Assessment. He earned a master’s degree in environmental science along the way. “I am very fortunate that my dreams came true and I get to enjoy every day at work.”
About once a week, calls for a distressed animal come from the public. “We always take every call seriously and will check to see if the animal is okay and not in distress, entangled, stranded or needing help,” he says. Bottlenose dolphins and pygmy sperm whales are the most commonly stranded species in his region.
If you see a marine mammal, Burton says to call it in and let trained professionals respond. The worst thing to do is try to push the animal back into the water, which is doing more harm than good, he says. People could also put themselves or the animal in danger, he notes. The baby sperm whale, for instance, weighed between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds. “If it rolls on you, you could drown.” Instead, call the FWC hotline number 1-888 404 3922, which is manned 24/7, 365 days a year. “Even if you are unsure if an animal is in distress, call it in,” says Burton. “I’d rather know than not know.”
Published in Vero Beach Portfolio magazine.