Marine Mammal Stranding Center’s Bob Schoelkopf retires after nearly 45 years in South Jersey

BRIGANTINE, NJ (WPVI) — “I’ve always said if you can work on a marine, you can work on a seal,” said Bob Schoelkopf.

The quote beautifully connects two parts of his life. In the late 1960s, Schoelkopf was a Special Ops Navy Corpsman providing medical services to Marines. When he returned to the Philadelphia area, he got his first job working with marine mammals at the Aquarama Aquarium Theater of the Sea on Broad Street.

“Steel Pier acquired the aquarium and all of the animals and moved it to Atlantic City,” Schoelkopf said. “That was 53 years ago.”

Schoelkopf, 76, followed them to the Jersey shore. But he soon found himself in the world of marine mammal rescue, which would become his life’s work.

“Because we were at Steel Pier and working with marine mammals, we received calls that there was an animal on the beach,” he said. “At that time there was no one in the state or federal government who did anything for them.”

The rescue of a pygmy sperm whale in 1976 was the catalyst for Schoelkopf’s decision to switch clientele from captive animals to wild animals.

He founded the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Atlantic City in 1978 and moved to Brigantine in 1983 with the support of community lifeguards. There they saved more than 5,000 seals, turtles, whales and dolphins over the next 45 years.

Not every animal had a happy ending, but the MMSC always intended to save, rehabilitate and, if possible, release them.

Meanwhile, Schoelkopf worked alongside his wife, Sheila Dean. Dean has since taken on the role of principal after Schoelkopf decided to retire.

“Bob is probably one of the most caring people in the world for animals,” she said. “He loves animals and they respond very well to him.”

Schoelkopf and Dean want to pass their non-profit rescue service on to the next generation.

“I felt like it was time to pass the torch on to someone else and let the younger guys take over the work that I’ve been doing all these years,” Schoelkopf said.

A current stranding technician, Mackenzie Peacock, is grateful for Schoelkopf’s guidance.

“It’s been great to be with someone who has so much experience, to hear his stories and to be able to train under him,” said Peacock. “He built this place so well and the staff was trained under him. So this place will just keep thriving and we’ll be able to do what we do.”

In retirement, Schoelkopf focuses on home improvement projects and enjoys free time with his wife and three dogs.

PSA: MMSC hopes the community will heed their warning to stay at least 50 meters away from seals and to call them if they think an animal is in danger.

To learn more about the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, visit their website or call their hotline at (609) 266-0538.

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