Suzanne with one of the sea turtles MERR has helped.

Suzanne Thurman, Founder & Director, MERR Institute

Devout marine animal enthusiast and determined environmentalist behind the nonprofit responsible for responding to nearly 300 animal rescues a year.

We can all relate to the heartbreaking sight of turtles with plastic straws stuck up their noses or beached whales stranded on the shore, eliciting reactions of “awww” or “how sad.” But for Suzanne Thurman, she’s made it her life’s work to do more than just frown. Inspired by the works of Rachel Carson and Jacques Cousteau during the environmental movement of the ‘70s, she fell in love with the ocean when her family moved to North Shores, where she’s lived since she was 11, and developed a passion and commitment toward ocean conservation. She was on a path to becoming a special education teacher, which was her first dream. She majored in environmental studies, however, and eventually married her two passions of teaching and environmentalism when she became an environmental educator. 

Following a great desire to dedicate her life to marine life and recognizing that there were few to no resources available to help them in this area, she founded the MERR (Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation) Institute in 2000. “I’m still able to include education as an essential part of MERR’s mission, because we believe that education is the most powerful tool toward achieving effective conservation,” says Thurman. MERR’s primary objective is to provide rescue and response for stranded marine mammals and sea turtles wherever they are in Delaware. They are on call 24/7 for emergency response. If animals are living, they provide veterinary care, and if they are deceased, they conduct research to try to determine what happened to the animal, and potentially more about ocean health.

You must have had some pretty rewarding animal-rescue moments. 
There are so many. Anytime we can rescue an animal and later, see it returned to the ocean to live its life, is very rewarding and keeps us going through the more tragic situations. I am also really proud of our interns who we train to go into future careers in this or related fields. I love to hear all of the wonderful things they do with that experience as they take it out into the world to make successful lives for themselves, where they are making a contribution.  

What was one of the most challenging moments you have had while working at MERR? 
One of the more poignant strandings involved a deceased northern bottlenose whale that was initially sighted alive with a calf. This is a rare species, and they were far from their home in the North Atlantic. The mother eventually died from ingesting a plastic aerosol can lid that blocked the passage of food into her GI tract, causing her to slowly starve to death. She was still nursing, so we knew the calf was dependent on her for life. We conducted surveys for days trying to locate the calf, but we were never able to find it.  

Tell us the most fascinating and weirdest thing you’ve encountered?
It’s hard to narrow this down, but one stranding event that stands out is a huge harbor seal that made its way into the spill way at Killens Pond, all the way from the Delaware Bay. He came up the Murderkill River to the Coursey Pond spillway, and then crossed the road during a snowstorm and went into Coursey Pond and up to the Killen’s Pond spillway. He spent the winter there, gorging himself on fish from the spillway. This is the first time we rescued a seal from the woods.

What do you like to do when you’re not rescuing our wildlife?
Most of my life is devoted to MERR, so there isn’t much time for other things. If I can occasionally get away I enjoy yoga, hiking with my dog, the beach, cooking for my friends, gardening, music and dancing Argentine tango. 

SUZANNE’S LOCAL FAVS

Beach Cape Henlopen State Park

Sunset Spot The Great Marsh near my office

Trail The Pinelands Trail

Live Music Summer concerts in the park

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