Dr. Michael Walsh joined the University of Florida in 2007 as part of the leadership team of the Aquatic Animal Health Program. His goal was to develop programs in marine animal medicine and science and enable collaboration of UF marine clinicians with state and federal wildlife programs, assisting those facilities with marine species work. These efforts included building a clinical/research program in marine animals to address marine mammals, sea turtles, education/outreach, and clinical based research. These initiatives are leveraged with 50 years of combined experience between Dr. Walsh and Dr. Craig Pelton, including projects with SeaWorld, Georgia Aquarium, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Sea Life Orlando Aquarium, and Sea Life Park Hawaii. Their work includes program building in medicine, management, husbandry, response, rescue, and rehabilitation of ill and injured marine species (stranded animals).
Funding support became available in response to the Deep horizons oil spill, through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and in conjunction with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Drs. Walsh and Pelton and Rachael Dailey-Mihalik (Rollins College) proposed recruiting a team to provide an organized stranding response on the coastlines of three west coast counties in Florida (Levy, Dixie and Taylor). In this isolated, less populated, often shallow, and wild natural ecosystem with extensive grasslands and oyster bars, the stranding response project started from scratch. A small team was assembled: Dr. Walsh, Rachael Dailey-Mihalik, Nina Thompson (UF), and advocate partners Jack Payne (retired from UF) and Mike Allen of the Nature Coast Biological Station. With additional support from Stefanie Gazda of the Cedar Key Dolphin Project and its most important wildlife partner, the Lower Suwannee Wildlife Refuge of US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Marine Animal Rescue Program was born. Some of the founding members have moved on and continue to protect the Gulf Coast in other ways, while the current team and partners work together, striving to protect the marine animals and their environment.