Reported by Catherine Yochum ’15
In a Feb. 1 episode of the series Sea Rescue, ABC TV featured the tale of a stranded harbor porpoise named Noodle and his remarkable journey of recovery back into the wild. The original heroes of the story? A group of Bowdoin students, who discovered the porpoise trapped in a Brunswick, Maine, salt marsh during a Biochemistry lab last year. Watch a preview of the episode “Locked and Found!” (Noodle’s segment starts at 0:18).
It was October 2012, and Assistant Professor of Earth and Oceanographic Science Michèle LaVigne and Laboratory Instructor Cathryn Field had taken a class to the Brunswick Commons for a lab on a chemical process called redox. Students dispersed to collect data, and the focus of the day quickly changed when what had resembled a piece of plastic turned out to be a harbor porpoise stranded in the salt marsh. Tiny relatives of dolphins and whales, harbor porpoises are common in North Atlantic coastal waters.
The marsh at Brunswick Commons is cut with small, deep streams, but the harbor porpoise was stuck in a shallow, disconnected pool with no way to swim back out. “There had been a series of really high tides,” Field explains, “so we assume it came in on one of those tides and accidentally swam over the flat part of the salt marsh.” The porpoise was partially dry, but visibly breathing through its blowhole.
One of the students present was Jessie Turner ’13, who had worked for the environmental organization Friends of Casco Bay. Turner had the Marine Mammals of Maine rescue center “on speed dial,” according to student Stephanie Lynn ’14. One of the rescuers who came to the harbor porpoise’s aid was Mary Hipkins of Bowdoin’s IT Equipment Services.
The 2-year-old male harbor porpoise, weighing in at a little more than 50 pounds, was transported to the University of New England’s Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center in Portland (documentation of his initial rehabilitation is available on their website). He was named Noodle after the foam pool toys that supported him until he regained the strength to float.
Once stabilized, Noodle was transferred to the only long-term rehabilitation tank big enough for him in the region, at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation in Long Island. Riverhead released Noodle back into the wild at the end of April 2013. Sea Rescue representatives contacted Fields and LaVigne about the story last fall, in anticipation of the Feb. 2014 episode featuring Noodle’s story.
“We were only involved for the first couple hours,” LaVigne said. But it was lucky that the Biogeochemistry class found Noodle when they did. In an article published shortly before Noodle’s release, Riverhead executive director Robert Digiovanni Jr. commented that porpoises are rarely found in a condition where they are able to be fully rehabilitated.
When the Riverhead Foundation released Noodle back into the wild, they attached a tracking device on his fin. His trajectory can be seen on their website. Noodle made his way back up the coast from Long Island and is now swimming around Casco Bay. As Lynn put it, “Noodle is a Mainer at heart.”