Porpoise rescue in New Jersey called off

March 18, 2009 1:29:35 PM PDT
Bobbing up and down in a placid lagoon, the young harbor porpoise faced off against a dozen people, four boats, two nets and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, all closing in on it Wednesday morning. Everyone feared it needed to be rescued.

It glided below the surface, heading straight for a 20-foot-wide net stretched between two boats. Its capture seemed inevitable. At the last minute, it dove deep, darting through a 2-foot gap between the mucky lagoon bottom and the edge of the net, heading back out to deeper water.

"This is a healthy animal that doesn't need to be picked up," said Bob Schoelkopf, co-director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. His group had joined with the Marine Mammal & Sea Turtle Rescue Program from Riverhead, N.Y., to try to capture the animal. "Because of how easily it evaded us, we've determined it is not in any trouble at this time," Schoelkopf said.

The story started about a week and a half ago when the porpoise was first spotted in lagoons in Little Egg Harbor Township and Tuckerton, about 20 miles north of Atlantic City.

There was reason for concern: It was a young animal, and had become separated from its pod, Schoelkopf said.

It's unusual, though not unheard of, for porpoises to inhabit lagoons, Schoelkopf said. It has happened in coastal communities outside Atlantic City, as well as on Long Island, N.Y.

The plan was to sidle up to the porpoise, either in a large aluminum rescue boat or in one of three inflatable speedboat rafts, and toss a large net over the animal.

They would bring it to shore in a padded sling, weight it on a 15-foot-tall scale suspended on a steel tripod, and take blood tests to see if the animal was sick or injured.

But the porpoise had other ideas.

"He seems very playful," said Bon Baker, who has watched the porpoise in the lagoon behind his house for about 10 days. "I think he found the area to his liking, and he probably wants to spend some time here."

That's exactly what Schoelkopf plans to let it do. The 3-foot-long porpoise weighs about 40 or 50 pounds, and looks to be in good health.

Schoelkopf said porpoises follow schools of herring and mackerel up the East Coast at this time of year, and noted the lagoons provide abundant food. When the porpoise runs of food or tires of the area, it will probably leave on its own.

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