Marine Scientist Serving Creatures of the Deep

Hometown Heroes, Odd Jobs, People
on June 10, 2001

When the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, N.J., (pop. 11,556) needs a volunteer to help a whale, weak from illness or injury, Tony Totah is their man. After donning a wetsuit, he walks a whaleliterally helping it through the waterto prevent the animal from drowning. But working with the Stranding Center is only a piece of Totahs dedication to preserving marine life.

Totah, a 40-year old Texas native, credits part of his interest in the ocean to the fascination he had as a boy with television shows such as Jacques Cousteau, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Flipper. But now I know that dolphins arent pets, he says.

His curiosity led him to the University of Texas in Austin to study marine science. After graduate work in Jamaica, he began working for Lehigh University Marine Lab in Stone Harbor, N.J.

When I came to New Jersey, I wasnt interested in dealing with pollution issues, Totah says. I wanted to work with animals. But when help was needed, he volunteered as a beach sweep captain for Clean Ocean Action (COA), a nonprofit organization protecting New Jerseys beaches and bays.

Not only do the beach sweeps clean the environment, he says, we collect data on the debris so we can look at trends, educate people about problems, and look for solutions.

The scientist in Totah saw the informations importance and he developed a program analyzing debris types. Shared with the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, D.C., its combined with data from other states and used to convince manufacturers to make more environmentally friendly products.

Last year, we found a six-pack ring that was 15 to 20 years old, Totah says. Thats how long it had been in the environment. Fish and birds can get caught in the rings and die. Today, partly due to data presented to the manufacturer, the rings are made of photodegradable material, which is broken down by sunlight.

His volunteer work with COA led director Cindy Zipf to acquire foundation funding 10 years ago for the creation of the South Jersey Center in Wildwood (pop. 4,484) and to place Totah at its helm. Hes got the incredible ability to put the scope of the ocean into a tangible message for kidsthat its to be protected and preserved and they make the difference, Zipf says. Weve taken every chance weve had to create opportunities for him.

Totahs educational programs pass on his love of the ocean to students. One such program, Student Summit Ecology, is held twice a year and provides students with hands-on activities. They write weather reports, do an archeological dig, and go fossil hunting. Students document findings to take back to their schools where teachers use it to encourage continued learning. Its fun and hands on, Totah says. We teach them that science is easy.

He also runs a habitat exploration program in which students look for shells, seeds, footprints, and bones to study the biodiversity of coastal life. Part of this is by seiningpulling a net through the oceanand analyzing whats retrieved.

You never know what youll get in a net, Totah says. Its kind of like a birthday present. We get tropical fish up here in summer and lots of sea horses, which are native to New Jersey. People have been here their whole lives and dont know we have sea horses.

Totah puts students through their paces during a mock whale stranding. The kids learn communication skills, he says. They have to relay important information, like how big the animal is, and give the rescuer a landmark so they can be found.

Kids also learn how to roll the animal onto a stretcher and pick it up. The program ends with a debriefing where Totah addresses problems or questions. Sometimes youve got to tell someone they got knocked over because they were too close to the whales tail and it moved, he laughs.

Two other projects are near to his heart. The first is The Littoral Society, a national organization focused on marine pollution control and coastal issues. The other is the environmental commission in Wildwood, where hes developing a plan for an environmentally friendly beach park.

Totah encourages everyone to help preserve the marine environment. Get educated, he suggests. Ask questions. It starts with one person. Dont be afraid to get out there. Lots of other people feel the same way and dont know how to get started.