Marine mammal rescuer retires after nearly 45 years in South Jersey

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Monday, January 9, 2023
Marine mammal rescuer retires after nearly 45 years in South Jersey
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For over four decades, Bob Schoelkopf has helped some of the most vulnerable animals to wash up on New Jersey's shores.

BRIGANTINE, New Jersey (WPVI) -- "I always said if you could work on a Marine, you could work on a seal," said Bob Schoelkopf.

The quote beautifully bridges two parts of his life together. In the late 1960s, Schoelkopf was a special ops Navy Corpsman who provided medical services to Marines. When he came back to the Philadelphia area, he got his first job working with marine mammals at the Aquarama Aquarium Theater of the Sea on Broad Street.

"Steel Pier acquired that aquarium and all the animals and moved it to Atlantic City," said Schoelkopf. "That was 53 years ago."

Schoelkopf, 76, followed them to the Jersey Shore. But he would soon find himself entangled in the world of marine mammal rescue, which would become his life's work.

"Being on Steel Pier and working with marine mammals, we would get calls that there'd be an animal on the beach," he said. "At that time, there was no one in the state or federal government that did anything for them."

The rescue of a Pygmy Sperm whale in 1976 was the catalyst for Schoelkopf's decision to change clientele from captive animals to wild ones.

He founded the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Atlantic City in 1978 and moved to Brigantine in 1983 with the support of lifeguards in the community. There, they rescued more than 5,000 seals, turtles, whales, and dolphins over the next 45 years.

Not every animal had a happy ending, but the MMSC always intended to rescue, rehabilitate, and release when possible.

All the while, Schoelkopf had his wife, Sheila Dean, working alongside him. Dean has since assumed the role of Director now that Schoelkopf has decided to retire.

"Bob is probably one of the most caring people in the world for animals," she said. "He loves animals and they respond very well to him."

Schoelkopf and Dean's intentions are to pass down their non-profit rescue service to the next generation.

"I felt it's time to pass the torch to someone else and let the younger people take over and do the job that I was doing all those years," said Schoelkopf.

One current Stranding Technician, Mackenzie Peacock, is grateful for Schoelkopf's leadership.

"To be able to be with someone who has that much experience and just hearing his stories and being able to train under him was great," said Peacock. "He built this place up so well and the staff was trained under him. So, this place is just going to continue to thrive and we're going to be able to do what we do."

In retirement, Schoelkopf has his sights set on home improvement projects and enjoying downtime with his wife and three dogs.

PSA: MMSC hopes the community will heed their warning to stay at least 150 feet away from seals and to give them a call whenever they believe an animal is in danger.

To learn more about the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, visit their website or call their hotline at (609) 266-0538.

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