Whale Scientists Story: Meghan Sutton

Meghan Sutton is a 24-year-old marine mammologist who works with Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida, USA. She is one of their rescue biologists. Meghan responds to marine mammal and sea turtle strandings and assists in their rehabilitation. Here is her story…

Meghan’s Education

I got my Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, USA. Though landlocked, I already knew I wanted to do marine science. I rationalized that it is always good to have general knowledge and education to fall back on if necessary. It was also cheaper than in coastal universities. I knew I would be paying a lot for graduate school.

Further specializing in my education, I attended the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) for 18 months. There I obtained my Master of Professional Science in Marine Mammal Science. Reasons for choosing this degree were its expedited timeline, its focus on developing technical research skills, and the great networking opportunities.

Meghan’s Internships

From Tennessee to Italy

I did two internships during undergraduate school. The first being an internship with a local zoo for an entire semester for course credit. Then, through MARMAM, I found my two-month internship in Italy with the CIMA Research Foundation, CETASMUS. We collected data from whale-watching boats. There were ongoing population surveys on the eight cetacean species that inhabit the Ligurian Sea. It provided both an excellent, independent fieldwork experience, but also led to an outstanding research opportunity. My internship supervisors allowed me to return with the data I collected for my senior thesis research. Now, that research has been accepted for publication in a small undergraduate research journal!

Meghan Sutton
Meghan on the CIMA research Vessel

Florida life

For my graduate program, each student conducts their research with a host internship organization. Through the university (UM), I connected and interned with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)/ Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s (FWRI) Southwest Marine Mammal Field Station for marine mammal strandings and research in Port Charlotte, Florida. I assisted in manatee and other marine mammal necropsies, live rescues, transports, and releases. I also helped in other on-going projects. As an intern and graduate student, I researched bottlenose dolphin skin lesions. I created a standardized rubric for grossly describing lesions in a way that did not interpret etiologies (the lesion’s cause).

Meghan working on freeing a dolphin from an entanglment

After graduating and finishing up that internship, I started interning with FWRI’s manatee GIS team in St. Petersburg, Florida. I found this through FWC’s internship page. With this position, I assisted in verification, digitization, and other analyses of Florida manatee data. I also helped with manatee genetic survey data entry and sample processing on a genetic sampling survey. My intern project focused on exploring and implementing tagged manatees as autonomous samplers of oceanographic data. Their tags collect temperature data that can be analyzed to identify secondary warm-water sites. This information is necessary for manatee survival during Florida winters.

Flexibility is Key!

I was recently hired on as an at-sea Monitor with AIS Inc. for the NE commercial ground fisheries. I have been tasked with collecting data on all the fish and incidental takes (i.e., marine mammals, sea turtles, and sea birds) to assist NMFS in enforcing fishery regulations.

However, that is not what I am currently doing because COVID delayed my training. Fortunately, I was able to find a job in marine mammal strandings! I was recently hired into the grant-funded associate biologist position at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium rescue team! My primary job duties include stranding response with an emphasis on necropsies and grant writing. I will also assist with rehab, coordinating interns and volunteers, outreach, and research.  

Meghan Sutton
Meghan practicing some Research methods in Key Largo

Rewards ,Trials, and Tribulations of Being a “Hero” (rescue biology)

The advantages of my rescue biologist position are that it will expedite my experience and jump-start my career. Stranding numbers in this region are relatively low compared to other Florida locations. I have the opportunity to work with rehab cetaceans and other resident cetaceans under managed-care. All residents were stranded, and their release was deemed un-releasable due to injuries. It allows me to have more live animal experience and promote effective live stranding response. I also study the medical side during rehab; it gives me a better understanding of cetacean anatomy. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is also heavily connected with the Southeast marine mammal stranding network. This is a cool opportunity to network and collaborate with other stranding agencies.

Some of the disadvantages of this position are typical of any stranding-related job. My schedule is very unpredictable and not structured. If we take in a rehab case, staff will have to work 24/7 to monitor the animal. It translates to overnight shifts for weeks to months at a time. Fortunately, stranding numbers are relatively low. Nowadays, I want to incorporate more research into my position. Additionally, grant writing is a necessary task that many people dread. It is also a particular skill to have so I hope to keep perfecting my writing skills with this time-consuming task.

The Future is Flexible!

I still have a lot to learn. I hope to grow as an experienced stranding biologist. My current goal is to tackle the obscene number of SOPs (standard operating procedure documents for training purposes). I also want to jump-start advance necropsy training and grant-related tasks.

At the moment, my timeline projects working in strandings for a while. I want to get my Ph.D. a the next years. Ultimately I want to give back to future students as a professor and do fieldwork during my summers. Then again, if I have learned nothing else during COVID-19, is that you cannot predict nor control the future. I know I have to go with the flow.

Balancing Priorities: A short story from Meghan’s rescue experiences

It was the day before my graduate school graduation at the University of Miami. I was still working my internship with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Marine Mammal Stranding Division’s Southwest Field Lab (SWFL) in Port Charlotte Florida. That morning at 7:00 am, I transported a manatee carcass up to a pathobiological lab in St. Petersburg, a two and a half hour round trip. I made it back to the SWFL in time to join the manatee necropsy with the team around 12:00 pm. However, two people that assisted had to leave early for another manatee carcass recovery. This left just me and one staff member to finish the necropsy.

Meghan Sutton
Meghan aiding in a manatee release

Just as we hopped in the shower, a distressed manatee, about an hour and a half south, needed rescuing. However, I couldn’t help transport to it SeaWorld and still make it to Miami for graduation. I followed the rescue truck in my car to the boat ramp. When we reached the animal, we set up the stretcher for a hip tow while the manatee was in 6+ ft of water. We towed it for almost an hour back to the boat ramp. The rescue team left for SeaWorld, and I went to finish the drive to Miami. I got to transport a carcass, assist in a necropsy, and assist in the rescue, all in ONE day! But I loved every minute of it. Just another typical day working in strandings!

Advice how to Stay Motivated for aspiring marine mammalogists

I highly suggest you find what you enjoy doing and get lost in it. It might not come easily, and you might have to try a few different paths, through internships or bibliography. But you will find your passion. You will know because even if you are sore, hungry, and exhausted, something deep inside tells you to keep going. Listen to that voice. It is pushing you to your full potential! Don’t give up, and try always to have a backup plan. Never become stagnant in your dream chasing!

Meghan Sutton
Meghan visiting CIMA’s “Plastic Whale” in 2017

Feel free to contact Meghan on Facebook, Instagram, or via her email for more information or advice!

Make sure to check out our other Whale Scientists Stories here.


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