Interview with Gulf World Marine Park and Gulf World Marine Institute in Panama City Beach
It was a hot and humid late summer day when we had the pleasure of speaking with the awesome people at both Gulf World Marine Park as well as Gulf World Marine Institute. The park and institute are two completely separate organizations but they share common goals and facilities in Panama City Beach, FL. Specifically, we spoke with Lauren Albrittain who is the Stranding Coordinator for Gulf World Marine Institute as well as Dr. Lydia Staggs who is the senior veterinarian for both the Park and Institute. Together, they help care for sea turtles, dolphins and all types of animals in Northwest Florida.
We also had the pleasure of speaking with Sam Tuno. She is the Sales and Marketing Manager at Gulf World and was the main person responsible for putting this exclusive interview together. So without further ado, let’s get started with our interview at Gulf World in Panama City Beach…
Q and A’s from our Interview with Lauren Albrittain and Dr. Lydia Staggs of Gulf World Panama City Beach
30A Prime: Lauren and Dr. Staggs, please tell us about what you do here at Gulf World.
Lauren: I’m the Stranding Coordinator with Gulf World Marine Institute. On a day to day basis, I am the person that gets first eyes on the turtles and I help to make sure they are fed properly. In most cases, I administer the feedings and I also work with our veterinarian staff to make sure any and all medications are given out.
Dr. Lydia Staggs: I’m the senior veterinarian for Gulf World Marine Park and Gulf World Marine Institute. My job is to take care of the animals with their health and safety and monitor all of the things that are going on with them every single day. When Lauren brings in a stranded animal we do an evaluation, we work it up, we get it on treatments. We follow the progression of that patient until it is able to be released back into the wild.
For the animals that are here as permanent residents, we just make sure that they are healthy and we do a lot of preventative care. The reason is, animals like to hide their illness and not show that they are sick because out in the wild they will get eaten or attacked if they show they aren’t doing so well. Therefore, we just like to make sure that everyone is healthy here at the park. So all the animals see the doctor at least once a year if not multiple times a year for preventative health screens.
30A Prime: Acknowledging that Gulf World Marine Park is a completely separate entity from Gulf World Marine Institute, please tell us more about the Park.
Dr. Lydia Staggs: The Park side of the operation, which is completely separate from the Institute, is where visitors can come and see our resident animals. We’re standing in “Dolphins Stadium” and you’ll see a couple of our resident bottle-nosed dolphins behind us now. Some of the animals from the institute were deemed non-releasable. All of the animals at Gulf World Marine Park were either stranded animals that were deemed nonreleasable or they were born here at the Park.
Actually, some of the boy dolphins that were rehabilitated and deemed nonreleasable are in the water behind me now. These are some of the guys that we take care of at Gulf World. Currently, we have 23 dolphins at the park of which 6 are Rough-toothed dolphins and we are the only facility in the United States that has that particular type of dolphin which is cool. Roughed-toothed dolphins are very unique, beautiful animals. The rest of the dolphins here are Bottlenose which are the type people are used to seeing on TV. Dolphins are great animals, very curious, very interactive, very social creatures and they are extremely smart.
30A Prime: Please tell us about some of the other types of animals here at Gulf World Marine Park.
Dr. Lydia Staggs: We have California Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, an assortment of birds and reptiles. In addition, we have stingrays, dogs, cats, and rats which brings us to the other part of the park… The cool thing about that is the birds, for example, are all rescues. They were either donated to us by people that got birds but then could no longer take care of them because birds can live up to 80 years. In many cases, their owners were elderly and about to pass away so they were donated to us to care for them.
In many other cases, people get birds as pets and don’t realize how much work they are to care for so they donate them to us at Gulf World. Same thing with all the reptiles we have here… They are all rescues or donations by people that could not take care of them for whatever reason. In addition, all the dogs and cats here are rescues from Alaqua Animal Refuge and so we’re very proud to take in animals that need a home. Taking in rescue animals here at Gulf World gives them a chance to live a good life, interact with people, other animals and be ambassadors for their species.
30A Prime: What is the main function of Gulf World Marine Institute?
Lauren: Gulf World Marine Institute is the primary responder for multiple Counties in the Panhandle. So we primarily respond to animals that strand in Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla Counties. In addition, we share part of Walton County and this does not mean that we will not participate in stranding responses outside our region. If another response organization for either turtles or marine mammals requests our assistance we will certainly do everything we can to help them out.
It also means we can sometimes take in patients that strand outside our region and treat them here at Gulf World Marine Institute. There are typically 2 situations where we take in stranded animals from outside our region and they are… Reason one is that we are the only marine mammal rehabilitation facility in the Florida Panhandle. Reason two is that we are the only facility that can treat sea turtles suffering from a certain kind of disease called Fibropapillomatosis because you have to be specially permitted to treat it. So when other rescue organizations bring in stranded turtles with Fibropapillomatosis they are required to send them to us at Gulf World Marine Institute.
30A Prime: Please tell us about multispecies interactions at Gulf World.
Dr. Lydia Staggs: We’re doing more and more with multispecies interaction. The Rough-toothed dolphins and the sea lions actually do a show together. It took them a while to get used to each other because of the fact that they do not interact in the wild. Other examples of how we incorporate multispecies interactions here is our dogs and birds interact. Our penguins and dolphins interact. Sometimes we’ll bring the dogs into Dolphin Stadium for the enrichment of the dolphins’ curiosity. Our focus is on mixing it up every single day for the benefit of all the animals.
30A Prime: What warning signs should your average beachgoers look for to identify turtles in need or distressed animals?
Lauren: There are a few ways in which members of the public can tell if a turtle needs the attention of Gulf World Marine Institute. One thing definitely is that if a turtle gets hooked accidentally by recreational fishermen, on the beach or at a pier, we do want to know about it mainly because if the turtle has done it once, it’s probably done it before. We’ve developed a really good rapport with the folks that operate our local Bay County Piers and we ask them to notify us right away if someone hooks a turtle. They help us out by inputting allot of really important data so that we can hopefully contribute to the knowledge of what specific baits the sea turtles are going after, which hooks are most detrimental, and other important facts. Once notified, we’ll go pick up the turtle and bring it back here to the Institute for a full work-up.
Other things you can look for when it comes to identifying distressed turtles are… If a turtle is on the beach and it’s not a nesting female that’s not OK. So, unless it’s a nesting female a turtle should not be washed up on the beach especially if it’s just sitting there not moving and it looks like it hasn’t moved and is coved in the sand. That type of behavior signals there is a problem and you need to give us a call.
Also, if a turtle cannon dive properly that’s another pretty good visual sign something might be wrong. So some folks will call us and say that a turtle has been at the surface for a long time. Turtles do perform a behavior called basking given that they are reptiles they like to warm themselves up in the sun and they can do that for a long time. So if I hear that the turtle dives and disappears that’s an OK turtle. However, if they tell me the turtle attempted to dive but it could not, that’s not OK and typically means there is some air where there should not be.
Finally, we need to know about turtles that are absolutely covered in barnacles and appear to have other injuries or entanglements. The best thing anyone can do that is not sure is simply give us a call and we’ll go from there. The best number to reach Gulf World Marine Institute at is… 1-888-404-3922
30A Prime: What are some of the natural predators of sea turtles?
Dr. Lydia Staggs: The two main natural predators for turtles are sharks and unfortunately human beings. In regards to natural predators of dolphins, they are other dolphin species, sharks, and humans. People have the biggest impact on all animals in the ocean whether it be through pollution or degradation of habitat. So we, unfortunately, are the worst predators of turtles and dolphins.
30A Prime: What can we humans do to limit our negative impact on marine life in general?
Dr. Lydia Staggs: There are a big 4 things we can do and all four deal with plastic… The first one is single-use plastic such as cups and straws. Stay away from single-use-plastic as much as possible. Take straws for example, there’s actually an organization that makes glass straws that are a fantastic alternative to plastic straws. The name of the organization is Hummingbird Straws and they make a glass sea turtle straw for us at Gulf World which you can purchase. Some of the proceeds go towards animal rehabilitation.
Plastic grocery bags are another big problem for marine animals. Re-usable grocery bags are a great alternative and help prevent injuries to sea turtles.
Water bottles are another major issue when it comes to the health and safety of sea turtles. Simply replacing water bottles with a Tervis is a great way to help sea life.
Balloons are another major detriment to marine life. They are very destructive because people let them go and they end up choking and/or entangling turtles. We are really trying to encourage schools to no longer do balloon releases and instead do virtual balloon releases.
30A Prime: Tell us about some of your animal rescue success stories…
Dr. Lydia Staggs: We have many animals here that are rescues and they are very, very rewarding because we know we helped them survive. Some of them have illnesses that deem them nonreleasable by the government. We do not get to decide which animals are releasable and which are not. That is done by a government committee that analyzes every single animal that comes in here and decides whether or not they can be released back into the wild.
The government has deemed some of these animals nonreleasable due to their illnesses and lack of survival skills so these guys now are ambassadors for the ones out in the wild and they are thriving and doing so well. It’s kind of neat to go with them and hang out with them and play with them. Just being able to interact with these guys knowing that you played a role in saving their lives and now they’re thriving and doing so well. I’ve been here long enough now that I’m watching some animals that came in as calves that were nonreleasable and now they are teenagers and they’re getting into trouble. Watching that and seeing them grow up and have babies is really wonderful and inspiring to see.
30A Prime: For those of us that are interested in helping Gulf World Marine Institute, how do we go about doing that?
Lauren: The best way the public can help us out here at the non-profit Gulf World Marine Institute is via financial donations. We have a cool program called “Adopt a Sea Turtle” where folks can go to our website and look up our Featured Patients. Our featured patients are currently with us and it’s a small donation of $25. For that donation, you’ll receive a certificate of adoption saying you are one of the turtles’ sponsors, a high-quality photo, an information sheet about the turtle as well as email notifications for when that turtle does get released. So you’re fully integrated into the turtles’ life during and after rehabilitation. We want people to know that they contributed to the successful care of the animal.
Attending sea turtle releases is the other main way the public can get to know us better as people and as an organization here at Gulf World Marine Institute. When a turtle is deemed fit for release, we send out a public announcement letting people know where and when the release will take place. From there we just encourage people to come out and see the turtles off.
That concluded our interview with Lauren Albrittain and Dr. Lydia Staggs. Our time at Gulf World Marine Park and Gulf World Marine Institute ended with a short conversation with marketing manager Sam Tuno. She was the person responsible for connecting the 30A Prime team with Lauren and Dr. Staggs and we are very appreciative of all three awesome women. Sam had some closing remarks as you’ll see below…
Sam Tuno: Hey guys I’m Sam Tuno the Sales and Marketing Manager here at Gulf World and I’d like to invite you out to experience all the different things we have to offer. We are open year-round 7 days a week and our regular hours are 9:30 am to 4:30 pm but that could change seasonally so make sure to check our website or our Gulf World Facebook page. We have lots of different things to offer you here at Gulf World…
We have daily shows, exhibits, as well as a variety of interactive programs. You can come and swim with our dolphins, our stingrays, our harbor seals and our penguins. In addition, you can also interact with our sea lions and Rough-toothed dolphins. So come check us out and also pay attention to our different shows. We change shows throughout the seasons and it’s always a great time so please come on out. We would love to have you here at Gulf World in Panama City Beach.