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Meet Mendy Garron, GARFO’s Marine Mammal Stranding Response Program Coordinator

What do you do as the regional Marine Mammal Stranding Response Coordinator?

I oversee and coordinate what happens when a marine mammal strands (either by beaching itself or dying at sea) in our waters from Virginia to Maine. I work with 14 organizations as part of our region’s Marine Mammal Stranding Response Network to respond to these sick, injured, or dead mammals that range in size from tiny seal pups to large whales. There are lots of laws, policies, and procedures applied across the country, and I get that information to our regional team to help them follow the latest best practices.

Marine mammals strand for natural reasons, like old age or disease, and for human-caused reasons, such as being struck by a vessel or entangled in fishing gear. Depending on the situation, I work with our network partners to provide everything from rescue and rehabilitation to necropsies (animal autopsies) to gather data and help determine the cause of death. We still have a lot to learn about these animals and how we are affecting them. So in addition to providing them with the best care possible if they strand alive, we also collect as much information from each event as we possibly can. To make sure we are prepared, I also participate in emergency response training so that we can respond quickly if there is  an oil spill or a natural disaster that would affect marine mammals.

What do you like best about your job?

It’s hard to say what the most rewarding parts of my job are because there are many rewards when working with such a dedicated team. If I have to choose, seeing a healthy animal released back into the ocean after an illness or an injury is truly amazing.

But I also think the bigger picture is very important--helping people understand the impacts of their actions on the ocean environment and how we, as humans, can make a difference for these animals. When I tell someone something that changes how they act or how they think about the ocean and marine mammals, that’s just as rewarding. Knowing that I can make a difference in something small--like having people cut up their plastic six-pack holders or recycling their tangled fishing line--is a huge win for the animals that might otherwise have died or been seriously injured as a result.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Being on call 24/7. Marine mammals have an uncanny knack for getting into trouble at odd hours or over holiday weekends. Especially in the winter. Also, by the time marine mammals have stranded, if alive they are often in dire condition with poor outcomes expected. Seeing animals suffering can be emotionally really tough on me, our stranding network responders, and any public observers at the event. You just don’t get used to it.

What educational and professional background helped you get to your career today?

Science was my favorite subject in school. I got my Bachelor’s degree in marine biology from the University of North Carolina at  Wilmington, and after college, got an internship at The Whale Center of New England, a whale research non-profit organization based in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I was part of a team that responded to marine mammals, so I was out on in all kinds of weather trying to help seals, dolphins, and whales.

How long have you been in this position, and what did you do before?

I have been in this position since 2006, but I have been with NOAA since 2003. My first position at NOAA Fisheries in Gloucester was working on outreach and education, as well as administrative tasks. In 2004, I began assisting staff in the Marine Mammal Response Program, and in 2006, became the program coordinator. Since that time I have become a certified veterinary technician, and received my Master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University.    

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.

I owe my career to a movie I saw when I was five years old: Orca. If you look up that movie, you’ll notice that it’s listed as a horror film (not sure what my parents were thinking letting me watch that at the age of five!). However, what I remember about the movie is the intelligence of the orcas and the family bond between the whales. From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to study and learn as much as I could about marine mammals and protect them from harm.