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The NJ Audubon’s Nature Center of Cape May asked one our of naturalists and marine biologists, Melissa Laurino of the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center to be a guest speaker at one of their themed education camp weeks, “Diving into the Deep.”  The presentation was given to pre-K through 7th graders and focused on the different species of marine mammals that migrate through our area of New Jersey, their biology and the threats they face living in our oceans and bays.

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The young explorers were very knowledgable on the characteristics all mammals have in common; breathing air, warm blooded, mammary glands and the presence of hair. The toothed whales (Odontocetes), baleen whales (Mysticetes) and even the pinnipeds or seals that migrate through New Jersey all have these characteristics.  After listing the different New Jersey species, we focused on each most common Odontocete and Mysticete, the Bottlenose Dolphin and the Humpback Whale.

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With each marine mammal sighting, our partnership with WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) and participation in Whale SENSE allows us to conduct opportunistic research on each one of our whale and dolphin watching trips onboard our vessel, the American Star, and also our sister ship, the Atlantic Star.  Our main project onboard is compiling an Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Catalog for the residential population of Cape May.  We examined photographs of previously cataloged dolphins and went around the room asking the young explorers to identify the major differences within the fins, or the characteristics we would identify them by like white patches, notches, missing pieces, etc. We also examined our Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale catalog and spotted the differences and unique characteristics of the tail fluke used to identify our Humpback Whales.

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Melissa pointing out the unique identifiable characteristics of Humpback Whale flukes.

Even after the whaling era in the United States, all of our marine mammals still suffer today due to a variety of different threats, despite being protected under the United States Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.  This Act makes it illegal to hunt, harm, harass or even feed or swim with marine mammals in United States waters. Vessel strikes, run-off pollution, by-catch, oil spills, and pollutant build-up within their tissues are a few examples of the threats that are posed to marine mammals today, but we focused mainly on marine debris and vessel strikes.

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We examined a photograph we took in May 2015 of a dolphin hit by a propeller. We still see this dolphin in our Cape May waters today with a scar that is healing over.

At the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, we started The Clean Ocean Initiative, a program to protect the overall health and environment of our ocean.  On every whale and dolphin watching trip, we always make an effort to pick up any type of floating marine debris.  The most common items we pick up are balloons, but we also commonly collect fishing line, plastic bottles, cans or containers.

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Plastic takes at least 400 years to break down in our oceans. This chart displayed the different marine debris items and how long they would take to break down in our oceans if we did not remove them.

The young explorers advanced their knowledge on how long it takes different types of marine debris to degrade within our oceans and bays. Plastic items are one of the most common items we collect on our trip and they take at least 4oo years to break down.  We also learned to spread awareness and tell our family members not to let balloons go at parties because most of them will end up in our waterways.

Our naturalists or marine biologists can give a wide range of presentations ranging from pre-K to high school students. If you are interested in a marine biology presentation call (609)-898-0055.