BIDDEFORD — As co-captain of the University of New England women’s swim team, Morgan Lawless spends a lot of time in the pool with other swimmers.

This year Lawless is learning to swim with harbor porpoises.

“It is awesome,” said Lawless, a senior from Syracuse, N.Y.

Lawless and nine teammates have been providing physical therapy to two juvenile harbor porpoises that were rescued off the Maine coast in recent months. Twice a day, in rain, snow or sunshine, the volunteers get into the 38-degree outdoor pool for therapy sessions.

Left to their own devices, the porpoises swim in only one direction, which weakens their muscles so much that they develop a permanent bend. So it’s up to the volunteers to coax them to switch directions.

Herding a porpoise isn’t easy, so the swimmers get a good workout, too.

On Thursday, Lawless worked with a 2- or 3-year-old female, dubbed Number 12, who got stranded on Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport during a storm on Feb. 26. She was one of three harbor porpoises to be stranded on the New England coast that week.

The 50-pound, dark gray porpoise surfaced in the pool frequently for air, her blowhole issuing puffy breaths that sounded like opening a pop-top on a soda can.

“She is really fast,” said Lawless.

Besides being strong swimmers, the volunteers have to be forceful, said Keith Matassa, marine animal rehabilitation coordinator at the university’s Marine Science Center and Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center.

Number 12 has been known to whack her therapists with her powerful tail or butt them with her head. She will ignore anyone who is apprehensive, Matassa said.

The odds that Number 12 will make a successful return to the wild are woefully low. Matassa said only one in 100 cetacean rescues ends with an animal going back in the ocean. Porpoises and other cetaceans are particularly hard to rehabilitate because they are extremely weak when they get stranded.

The Gulf of Maine’s 90,000 harbor porpoises, which are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, have been under siege. In some years, several thousand get entangled and drown in fishermen’s gill nets.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued new rules last month to expand when and where acoustic net alarms – called pingers – are required on gill nets to cut down on the deaths.

Marine animal rehabilitation is expensive.

A harbor porpoise, which was named Toughy, was rescued in Pembroke in November and died last week after months of extensive efforts to bring her back to health. Those efforts cost $500 a day. Toughy’s medication alone cost $23 a tablet, and she needed two tablets a day.

But researchers say the effort is worth it. Michele Sims, a veterinarian who cares for the animals at the center, said that while the success rate is low, working with the porpoises provides a lot of information about the species.

“Any data is good data,” said Sims.

The past winter was hard on marine life. UNE’s center has a full house, with its pools filled with turtles and seals. Matassa said the decision to take on Number 12 was difficult.

He said the hope was that Number 12 would aid in Toughy’s recovery by providing stimulation, which worked until Toughy’s pneumonia recurred.

Number 12 arrived underweight and beat up. Her corneas were scratched, possibly from sand blown into her eyes by 80 mph winds. Her dark gray skin was lacerated, and she developed lesions.

Her fate is far from certain. On Thursday, she was gently lifted poolside onto a soft foam bed, where Sims took swabs from her blowhole and listened to her heartbeat. Although Number 12 is hand-fed about 10 pounds of herring in four feedings a day, she is not gaining weight.

The next step is to transfer her to the Maine Veterinary Referral Center in Scarborough for a CT scan to examine her lungs and intestinal tract for parasites.

If it’s successful, Number 12’s rehabilitation could take six months to a year.

Matassa said the staff and volunteers try hard not to habituate Number 12 to humans because the goal is to return her to the wild. That is why they rarely name animals, and instead assign them numbers.

But Matassa said developing an emotional connection is often inevitable. “We try not to have one, but you are working with these animals every day.”

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]


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