Rescuing marine animals requires professionals, but volunteers flock to the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo to assist rescue stranded pilot whales and other marine life.
"I've had over 5,000 people come through here to participate, many of them from around the world," said a volunteer. "We had Israelis, Chinese and Japanese. We've had people from England and Scotland. We just had some from France. It's a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with an animal from the ocean that's hopefully going back to the ocean."
Volunteers receive a basic course on how to hold a whale properly and assist in rescue and rehabilitation. They also may get an opportunity to participate in a necropsy, or animal autopsy.
"The things they do are invaluable to us," said a volunteer, who in his 25 years with the MMC has helped rescue 450 marine animals of 18 different species.
Animals don't strand themselves every day, but tourists who come to volunteer will always find something to do.
"We're constantly doing maintenance," the same volunteer said. "We have a lot of equipment that has to be mobile-ready."
Other Florida organizations that rescue marine animals also seek volunteer help.
Volunteers at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa log tens of thousands of hours every year, and those who acquire special training get to work with the animals.
Tourists who have flexible schedules can watch the MMC web site to find out when a marine animal needs rescue. Sign up at www.marinemammalconservancy.org and you'll receive updates.
Anyone interested in volunteering for the Stranding Network in the Florida Keys should contact Stranding Network stations directly at 305-451-4774.
If volunteers are greatly needed (such as during an active rehabilitation during which we have live animals on property), hotels will often be accommodating with reduced rates.
Tom Valeo is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg.