As the state's only federally licensed facility of its kind, and being located in a coastal community that sees thousands of visitors from statewide and beyond every summer, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center has been able to rely on plenty of support from folks beyond just its hometown of Brigantine.

Such a support system is crucial to helping the MMSC achieve its mission of rescuing and rehabilitating marine mammals — all of which are federally protected species — and sea turtles that most often find themselves in need of assistance due to human recklessness.

Saturday morning, May 19, marks the 21st anniversary of one of the center's annual fundraising efforts. The MMSC Run/Walk for the Animals, which began in a northern New Jersey beach town in 1997 and is happening in Brigantine for the sixth year, could serve as a microcosm of the growing recognition for what the center is trying to achieve and how its support structure continues to grow.

More than 280 people signed up for this year's event through May 17, and with online registration open until 11 a.m. Friday for $30 at mmsc.org, and on-site registration available for $35 starting 7:30 a.m. Saturday, that total is likely to surpass 300 runners. Last year's total was slightly more than 160.

“This is our biggest one yet,” MMSC special-events coordinator Peggy Tomeo-Richards said. “Word is getting out there.

“Each year we try to do something a little different than other runs,” she said. “We offer a full (post-race) breakfast buffet that's part of the registration fee, we give out unique hand-carved wooden trophies (to the top-three runners in eight age groups, from 14-and-under to 70-and-over), and it's stroller friendly and dog friendly.”

All runners get an MMSC T-shirt with registration. There also will be several gift baskets and auction items to bid on after the race and during the breakfast buffet. Those amenities, combined with family-friendly features and ocean views along most of the event's 5k route, could factor into why a large percentage of the runners are middle-aged, said Sheila Dean. The majority of the nearly 300 sign-ups were in the 50-to-59 age group, she said, and the next largest group of participants were 40 to 49.

Dean, co-founder of the MMSC 40 years ago with her husband Bob Schoelkopf — starting in Atlantic City's Gardner's Basin in 1978 and moving to Brigantine in 1983 — also noted that there were more runners from other states this year than in years past.

“This year we've had runners signing up from New York to as far south as South Carolina,” Dean said. “They're coming from all over the place. We're really excited about it.”

The MMSC receives a stipend from the state as part of the sale of all Wildlife-embossed license plates, but most other state and federal financial support has dried up over the years. Events such as this have always been crucial, said Dean, but are even more so this year. The center is seeking to replace its primary vehicle for major transports, a custom 1998 Ford F-550 ambulance, and also a collapsible tent for overflow animals with a more permanent structure similar to a Quonset hut.

Saturday's race begins at 9 a.m. at Laguna Grill and Rum Bar, 14th Street South and Ocean Avenue, and circles back around to a kiosk at Laguna Grill. Runners will be electronically timed via their race bibs by SpectaSport, and will be able to instantly see their times in the finish-line kiosk or on their mobile devises.

Paul Danaher of Brigantine Physical Therapy and Fitness will conduct a pre-race warm-up. Nonrunners can enjoy the post-race brunch for $5.

“Rip (Reynolds, of Laguna Grill,) and all our sponsors have been phenomenal,” Dean said.

Other major event sponsors include the Brigantine Chamber of Commerce, Signarama of Egg Harbor Township, Kindle Auto Plaza, Brigantine VFW Post 6964, Ocean Running Club, Garden State Veterinary Specialists, Xtreme Construction, Dr. David Donati, Insurance Agencies Inc., Marian Knowles, and the Law Offices of Brian Heun.

Summer programming starting in early June

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center's educational and interactive summer programming will begin 4 p.m. Wednesday, June 6, with a visit from the Margate Terrapin Project. The presentation will take place in the Brigantine Community Center and will explore Diamondback Terrapins — a species of turtle that lives in the back bays of Brigantine and other barrier islands.

On July 11, Kaitlin Gannon, a representative of the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve, will give a talk on one of the most pristine estuaries along the mid-Atlantic coast.

The MMSC will present “Penguin Pointers” on July 19, including a talk with some of the penguin keepers at the Jenkinson's Aquarium in Point Pleasant Beach, Ocean County, and a visit from a live African penguin.

There is also regularly scheduled family-friendly educational programming such as mock dolphin and sea turtle strandings (9 a.m. Thursdays starting June 28) and seine netting (9 a.m. Fridays starting June 29). Beach sweeps are often involved in such programming, said MMSC education coordinator Dr. Lauren Harshaw. “Kids will learn how to seine for fish, care for a stranded dolphin or sea turtle, learn about the sale marsh, and they'll also help the environment by doing a beach cleanup,” she said.

The MMSC relies on a vast statewide volunteer support staff to assist with strandings and special events. Several of the center's volunteers will assist Harshaw with the programming. Many of the events are free and open to the public; others may require a small fee to cover costs. Pre-registration is required for all.

Go to mmsc.org to register or to learn more about other upcoming MMSC special events.

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