It was Christmas Day and Andrea Spence was starting to prepare dinner when she received a call about 20 stranded dolphins. She quickly left her home in South Orleans and headed for Brewster, where she weathered heavy rain with other members of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research Team.
Spence and her colleagues were met with a dire situation: 11 live dolphins were stranded on the flats at Sea Pines Drive. Six more had already died before the team’s arrival. The team typically prefers to relocate animals to deeper water during rescues, but that wasn’t an option because the tide was rapidly coming in and daylight was fading by the minute.
“In that case, the team was able to get identification tags on the dorsal fins of each of the animals and refloat them from the same beach they stranded on,” said Spence. “Thankfully none of those animals have been resighted again, so hopefully that’s a happy ending for those animals.”
The Christmas Day rescue is a recent sample of the unpredictability Spence faces during her daily life as a volunteer for IFAW, one of the largest animal welfare non-profit organizations in the world.
“The amazing part of this work is you really have no idea what any particular day is going to bring,” said Spence.
Despite growing up in Central Massachusetts, Spence developed an interest in the ocean and marine mammals at a young age. As a kid, she spent a lot of her free time learning about the ocean, and one of her favorite days of the school year was when her class would take its annual fieldtrip to the New England Aquarium.
After studying marine biology at the University of Rhode Island for one year, Spence accepted a job nannying for a family in Southborough, a position she kept for the next 17 years. Once she bought a house with her husband in Orleans in 2015, she knew she wanted to return to her passion for marine mammals and the ocean.
“Very quickly after moving to the Cape full time, I started to get involved in marine mammal rehab with the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay,” said Spence. “Then I wanted to get involved with marine mammal stranding, so I filled out an application to start volunteering with IFAW.”
Serving as a volunteer for the entirety of 2018 confirmed what Spence already knew — she wanted to become more involved with marine mammals. In 2019, Spence decided to be an intern for IFAW, a decision that strengthened her knowledge and diversified her first-hand experiences.
“First, I was necropsy intern so I was involved with a lot of the animal examinations on carcasses as well as responding to live animals,” she explained. “Then I went into a response internship where my focus was on responding to stranded animals on the beach. I finally rounded things out with a research internship helping Kathryn Rose out with some of the research IFAW is undertaking.”
Spence has continued volunteering for IFAW since her internship ended. She estimates the nonprofit has between eight to 10 full-time employees based out of its Yarmouth Port office as well as five or six interns and about 200 volunteers throughout Cape Cod.
It can be grueling work regardless of the time of year. Sometimes, Spence finds herself trudging through mud that’s above her knees. Other times, she’s standing in frigid water up to her chest, as was the case in early November when she was a part of the team of IFAW staff and volunteers that tried to rescue the young humpback whale that died after being stranded off Stage Harbor.
“That day in Stage Harbor we were in water at some points that was chest deep,” said Spence. “The water was pretty cold. Even though we have a dry suit on to protect us from getting wet, it doesn’t always protect thermally.”
In addition to her volunteer work for IFAW, Spence has also volunteered and interned for the National Marine Life Center, volunteered at the Center for Coastal Studies and has worked as a naturalist on the Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch boats. Her responsibilities for IFAW have grown since she completed her internship and she’s hopeful she’ll eventually land a full-time position working with marine mammals in the future.
“It feels really awesome to be as involved as I am, especially as a woman in the science field,” she said. “You just feel like you’re making a difference out there which is awesome. It’s something I can see myself doing until I physically can’t do it anymore.”
Spence understands that Cape Cod residents and visitors are often interested in stranded marine mammals. However, she points out the animals often experience shock comparable to what humans might feel after a bad car accident. Because of that, Spence said anyone who encounters a stranded marine mammal should quickly call IFAW’s local stranding hotline at 508-743-9548.
“A lot of folks will think that because it’s an animal that lives in the ocean it needs to get back into the water as soon as possible,” Spence said, “but that’s not always the case. These animals do need treatment first.
“One of the most important things is to not try to push these animals or pull them by their tails back into the water — that can cause damage to the bones and the vertebrae in their bodies and hurt their chances of surviving.”
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