The Marine, Education, Research and Rehabilitation - MERR - Institute works with the state to protect marine life.

Suzanne Thurman grew up watching Jacques Cousteau.

When Thurman’s family moved to Sussex County, Thurman, then 12, fell in love with Delaware’s rugged coastline and the ocean itself.

Thurman, who grew up to become a special education teacher, has always been passionate about the environment and committed to its wildlife. She put that energy and commitment into volunteering for the state.

She was content with that role until one day the bay turned bitterly cold so rapidly that a sea turtle could not adjust to the frigid temperatures. When the state and Thurman responded to the turtle, it was already in a semi-coma. Thurman took the turtle home and kept in her laundry room, in an effort to keep it alive, until it could be sent to the Baltimore Aquarium. The turtle made it and was released back into the wild that summer.

Thurman realized from that experience that Sussex County, home to the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, needed more than what the state was offering for sea life response and rescues. She asked if she could fundraise for the state and bolster the program she had been working with. The answer was “no.” Even if she could raise funds for the state, she was told, it would be unlikely that the money she raised would go toward a particular program, or specifically, to a program committed to rescuing and rehabilitating sea life.

Thurman could have accepted that, but instead, and with the blessing of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, she created the Marine, Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute, or MERR. MERR has a memorandum of understanding agreement with Delaware’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. Robert Hossler, a wildlife administrator with DNREC, said the state manages and provides regulatory oversight regarding protected marine life, and MERR acts as the state’s agent by responding when a marine mammal or sea turtle is stranded.

The Division of Fish and Wildlife has a lot of flexibility when it comes to using the federal funds it receives, Hossler wrote in an email, but it is not authorized to use those funds for the rehabilitation of any wildlife. In the past, the division has helped MERR obtain Prescott funding to assist with marine mammal strandings.

Merr, which is nestled in a small building in Lewes next to the U.S. Coast Guard and the University of Delaware, celebrates its 16th anniversary this month. Next month, on Nov. 19th, Merr will hold its annual fundraiser at Salero restaurant at Henlopen Hotel.

Starting MERR and keeping it going has been a labor of love for Thurman. When Thurman, who is originally from Buffalo, N.Y., started MERR she had two very specific goals: she wanted a dedicated facility for MERR and she wanted a dedicated vehicle that could get onto the beach. She more than accomplished both.

The nonprofit now has 150 volunteers, a board of directors and about 1,000 members and supporters.

MERR also has interns who assist with rescues, collecting data and the necropsies the institute sometimes performs when the animals are not able to be saved. When two whales washed ashore this summer on Bethany Beach, it was Thurman’s organization that was asked to respond. MERR receives about 300 calls per year. Thurman, who grew up in the age of Jacques Cousteau, sees MERR as watchdogs for the ocean’s health.

With her original goals met, Thurman now has a new vision for MERR. She plans to turn MERR into an education and visitors center. She launched the initiative last December when she received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a feasibility study.

She is now working with the city of Lewes and the University of Delaware on the possibility of procuring land where the visitor center would reside.

The center, Thurman said, would allow the institute to provide more internships to college students interested in studying marine life. The center would also serve to preserve maritime history, and it would benefit the overall economy.

Thurman is in the preliminary stages of the campaign. She does not have a figure yet on how much the center will cost. Securing a spot for it will be the first step of the process. She already knows that the building will be environmentally-friendly, an example of conservation itself, she said.

Even during its early days, Thurman foresaw what MERR’s future could be, and that future included an education center, where children and adults would learn how to become good stewards of the ocean and the environment.

“Things fell into place,” she said. “It’s where the most hope lies. We like to give children a means to be empowered.”