You might say it was a whale of an idea; merging the Cape Cod Stranding Network and Yarmouth-based International Fund for Animal Welfare.

You might say it was a whale of an idea; merging the Cape Cod Stranding Network and Yarmouth-based International Fund for Animal Welfare.

That merger is complete, linking the five-member CCSN staff and their wondrous web of 350 volunteers with IFAW’s 300 worldwide staffers and deep resources.

“This has been a long time coming,” declared Katie Touhey, CCSN’s director and now IFAW’s Emergency Relief Manager for Marine Mammals. “The Cape Cod Stranding Network started Nov. 15, 1998 and the first day we were operating a pilot whale stranded, just one. We had a hand-me-down truck and a handful of volunteers. I remember thinking this is great that we have so much. Everything grew so fast.”

The stranding network currently monitors 700 miles of coastline, from the south shore to the Rhode Island border. Last year the five staffers handled 272 strandings of whales, dolphins and seals. So far this year they’ve dealt with 212.

“We’re at the point to where we started to outgrow our capacity to keep up,” Touhey said.

Touhey and her team developed a technique to prevent strandings, using acoustic “pingers” to herd whales and dolphins away from the shore. But fundraising was grant-to-grant. As they battled to understand the whole phenomenon, refine their medical technique, improve their success rate and spread the word linking with a bigger organization seemed like a good idea.

“Over the years many different people at IFAW would say this is such a perfect match, we’re doing the same things,” recalled CCSN volunteer and IFAW’s Director of Animals in Crisis and Distress A.J. Cady. “But it made sense for the stranding network to build on its own for a few years.”

The network was based in the National Marine Life Center building in Buzzards Bay. They’ll operate out of IFAW’s offices on Route 6A and Workshop Road until everyone moves into IFAW’s new international headquarters on Willow Street in West Yarmouth in January.

“We don’t live here yet; they don’t know how busy we are,” Touhey joked, “Our staff of five-and-a-half biologists was spending more and more time on administrative efforts. This merger is an opportunity for us to get back to what we started out to do. By being part of IFAW, we inherit a whole lot of infrastructure that would’ve taken us decades to do.”

IFAW was founded in 1969 to stop the commercial hunting of seal pups in Canada. It has been headquartered on Cape Cod since 1977.

“IFAW has gone from a small organization founded on a single issue to a large organization with offices in 16 countries,” said IFAW Executive Vice President Azzedinet Downes. “We have 300 staffers, two million supporters and we employ 150 people on Cape Cod. Our roots are here.”

Two 36-foot long trailers are Exhibit A of what the network has gained in resources.

Cady showed off one that can transports four to six dolphins in relative comfort while providing shelter and sleeping facilities for staff. It doubles as a mobile lab. That’ll be most welcome when they’re freezing on the Wellfleet shore, tending dolphins past a February midnight.

“So we’ll get better and better and the numbers of animals we’re saving in mass strandings will go up,” promised Touhey. “From 1998 to 2004 14 percent of the live animals from mass strandings were released, but every year since it has gone up; now in 2007 that number is 50 percent.”

One of the biggest benefits will be stable staffing that will coincide with stable funding.

“We were certainly a little nervous becoming part of a bigger organization, but in talking to everyone it was a win-win situation,” Touhey said. “My staff is thrilled to be part of IFAW. The biggest part for us was to know we could keep the essence of what is the CCSN once we came in the front door here.”

The network, under IFAW’s umbrella, is founded on the rock of volunteerism.

“These are some of the most dedicated and passionate individuals I’ve ever had the chance to meet,” Touhey reflected.

For IFAW, a founding member of the network, CCSN’s expertise and high local profile have been added and its emergency response team broadened. They’ll use the network as a model around the world.

“NGO’s are criticized for not working together and for too much competition so this is a great example of getting resources together,” Downes said.

IFAW has rescued animals in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, cleaned oil from 20,000 penguins in South Africa and investigated the ivory trade in China.

The stranding network’s hotline number remains 508-743-9548 to report a beached marine mammal.

“As a result of the merger I truly believe the protection of marine mammals around Cape Cod will grow even stronger,” Downes said.

Touhey agrees.

“It’s going to make all the difference in the world for the Cape Cod Stranding Network,” she said. “It’ll jump us about a decade in what we can do.”