By Mary Reid Barrow
Mark Swingle retired Thursday as the Virginia Aquarium’s chief of Research & Conservation after 40 years of caring for marine mammals and teaching us all to be better caretakers of the Earth.
As the Virginia Aquarium’s first full-time employee, Mark has made a huge impact on the health and well-being of not only the marine animals that swim in our waters but also on the people that reside in our city.
Now the aquarium needs to hire three people to take his place!
They will need a director for Mark’s long-time dream, the beautiful new Darden Marine Animal Conservation Center which opened last year. It is home to the aquarium’s Stranding Response Program that Mark founded two decades ago to save and rehabilitate marine mammals that stranded on our shores, were struck by boats, tangled in nets, or tethered to balloon or fishing line.
The new center also is home to the aquarium’s Research Program as well as Aquatic Animal Collections and Quarantine.
The aquarium also will need a sustainability officer to maintain the high standards set by the aquarium’s Green Team that Mark also established, The Aquarium became one of the first Virginia Green facilities recognized by the state, because recycling and compostable products are used in all aquarium operations.
Mark also began the aquarium’s e-cycling program, which has collected 700,000 pounds of electronic waste since 2016. And just last weekend, he was in the aquarium parking lot helping to direct a long line of people in their cars, ready to turn in their old computers, iPads and other electronic gear.
Third, the aquarium will need to hire an advocacy staff person to continue Mark’s lobbying efforts for the health and welfare of our animals and citizens on the federal, state and local level.
Mark always has been front and center speaking for the environment. He worked for the development of nets that would catch fish, but not sea turtles or dolphins, pushed for balloon and plastic bag legislation and spoke out against oil drilling off our coast, among many issues.
But that’s just Mark’s accomplishments on paper. It will be hard to replace any part of Mark in person. For 40 years, he has been urging, supporting, and fighting for tough environmental issues, always with a smile on his face and a gentle manner.
“He’s one of those people who gets things done, “said Terri Gorman, LRNow’s Pearl Home coordinator. “And he’s just very graceful about it all.”
By involving people in the release of stranded marine animals, supporting local efforts like fishing line cleanups, and speaking to various organizations, Mark has made an impact on the way the aquarium has developed and interacts with our community, said LRNow’s director Karen Forget.
At Mark’s retirement celebration Thursday, the aquarium honored Mark by announcing it had established the Mark Swingle Endowed Fund for Research and Conservation that now amounts to over $100,000.
Folks, who attended, ranged from Mayor Bobby Dyer to the Aquarium board of directors, from Mark’s aquarium colleagues and former colleagues to stranding team volunteers and others who had worked with him over the years on conservation projects.
Several speeches referred to Mark’s stellar reputation in the scientific community and his impact locally, nationally, and even internationally. Yet all speakers returned to his ability to work with others and convince us to do the right thing.
When the program was over, there was hardly a dry eye in the room. And I bet a sea turtle or two, swimming free in the ocean, thanks to Mark, shed a few tears too.
Photos Courtesy of the Virginia Aquarium
P.S. Full disclosure: I had the good fortune of working with Mark in the very early days of the aquarium and have considered him a friend ever since.