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Porpoise latest patient at UNE 'hospital'

Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center - University of New England

By John Swinconeck

York County Coast Star

25th September 2003

BIDDEFORD - Call him a marine mammal, a cetacean, or a harbour porpoise. You can even call the 14-month-old animal 0304P, his National Aquarium in Baltimore identification number. Just please don't call him a fish, said Keith Matassa, marine mammal rehabilitation co-ordinator at the University of New England.

Like whales and dolphins, porpoises are warm blooded mammals that bear their young live, and must surface to breath.

This porpoise was found emaciated and stranded along North Carolina's Outer Banks. The four-foot long, 70 pound porpoise is the first to be rehabilitated at the university's Marine Science and Education Research Center. He was taken to the centre Sept. 5 from the National Aquarium, where he had lived since March. The porpoise was delivered via a Coast Guard Falcon jet, and was driven (with a police escort) from the Portland Jetport to the university.

"Everyone who was involved was fantastic," Matassa said.

Once the porpoise arrived at UNE, he was placed under a 24-hour watch for three days by staff and volunteers. UNE was chosen as the final stop on the mammal's road to wellness because of its state-of-the-art facility, Matassa said. The animal's pool uses natural sea water that doesn't need chemicals to make it compatible with the porpoise. The water is treated before being released out to sea.

"It's cleaner going out than it was coming in," Matassa said.

"He's doing well," said animal care technician Erika Gebhard. "His skin lesions have healed nicely."

The lesions are a common site on porpoises, although it is not clear why they occur.

Matassa said he hoped the university will be able do more cetacean rehabilitation. The centre is helping a gray seal which was found with fishing net entangled around its neck, and a small harbor seal which has been blinded. This first porpoise, he said, is great experience for UNE staff and volunteers.

"It teaches you a bunch," he said.

For UNE students, its also a chance for real hands-on rehabilitation experience before entering the competitive field of marine biology, Matassa said.

"This is a first time experience for myself," Gebhard said. "I'm learning a lot in that aspect. Things like behaviour and how he likes to interact in his environment. We'd like to have the thing in a natural setting. It's a great experience, but I want to see the animal back out there."

Until then, the porpoise, which has been circling in its pen, will undergo at least one more physical and will be fed herring by people like work study student Damian Moran.

The toothed cetacean is in its final stages of rehabilitation, and is expected to be released into the Gulf of Maine in a few weeks. Gebhard said they will try to release the animal within sight of other harbour porpoises. They are solitary, however, and while they can be seen in groups, they do not form the close bonds seen in such toothed whales like pilot whales, which have a history of beaching en mass on New England shores.

A satellite tag will be affixed to the UNE porpoise to allow scientists to track his movements and diving patterns, which will help access the animal's behaviour and health, according to the university.

John Swinconeck can be reached at