Steward of the Sea

Whenever wounded animals wash ashore, Suzanne Thurman shows up to help. But it’s education, she says, that will ultimately save them.



Suzanne Thurman uses such props as whale flipper bones,
a sea turtle skull and a whale vertebrae to help teach
children about environmental awareness.
Photograph by Keith Mosher www.kamproductions.com

 

 






The skull that adorns Suzanne Thurman’s office belonged to a 70,000-pound monster. It was a fin whale, the second largest whale species in the world. The 55-footer who belonged to it, distinguished by its baleen plates and asymmetrical coloration around its mouth, washed up on Middlesex Beach last May.

Thurman’s job was to move it.

It took three solid days, help from the Division of Soil and Water, and a couple pieces of heavy lifting equipment to get the behemoth off the beach. Before burial, Thurman and volunteers collected data, biological samples and specimens. And, of course, the skull.

The stranding was one of 90 Thurman dealt with in 2006. She is the director of the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute, a non-profit stranding response organization based near Lewes. When a dolphin or a sea turtle washes up on the beach, Thurman gets the call. If the animal is dead, she becomes the Gil Grissom of the Delaware seashore, conducting “CSI”-like inspections, using tissue samples and forensic methods to determine cause of death and details about the animal’s final moments. If the animal is alive, she kicks into high gear, coordinating volunteers, administering first aid and lecturing onlookers.

“Yeah, it’s a full time job,” she says.

Thurman handles each stranding personally. She was on hand in 2006 for all seven whales, 27 seals, 40 turtles, 12 dolphins, three porpoises and one manatee that washed ashore here. Many cases involve removing an often-gigantic carcass from the beach, taking blood and tissue samples and conducting a necropsy, the animal version of an autopsy.

Thurman’s cell phone rings constantly. It rings after midnight, during birthday parties and on Christmas. Though MERR has come a long way since its bare bones beginnings in 2000, Thurman still does the work of a half dozen employees.

Her headquarters is a blocky, white aluminum building near the UD College of Marine and Earth Studies in Lewes, adjacent to the Broadkill River. Just beyond that is the Delaware Bay. Lewes owns this chunk of land, which it leases to UD, which in turn, leases to MERR. If not for the giant fin whale skull in the front yard, you’d swear the facility was a storage garage.

Thurman is embroiled in the task of hosing off a grateful diamondback terrapin. It’s not a species she typically rescues. Rather, the reptile is shown to children during education seminars, which are Thurman’s favorite part of her job.

Before long, 18 fresh-faced tykes arrive from the Killens Pond State Park day camp, armed with tough questions and a breadth of SpongeBob-related undersea knowledge.

Thurman’s cluttered lab is decorated with poster boards and displays, plush turtles and inflatable dolphins. But the kids’ eyes dart immediately to the giant skull, with its beach ball-sized eye sockets and its bristly baleen.

“I really think education is the most effective tool that we have toward changing anything,” she says. “It’s the most hopeful part of the work I do. They grow up with this knowledge instead of having to change their ways. They grow up with this stewardship and responsibility for their actions.”

Eleven-year-old A.J. Hayward responded with gusto when Thurman spoke to his class in 2006. He has since raised $1,700 for MERR through bake sales at his school. He also helped at the fin whale stranding and helped monitor the heartbeat of a hooded seal stranded in 2006.

Hayward, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s 2006 Young Environmentalist of the Year, has informed Thurman that she can’t retire until he completes his master’s degree, so that he can take over her post. “She’s been an awesome role model for me,” he says.

Research and preservation are other parts of Thurman’s daily life. MERR contributes to government and private research efforts, mainly by collecting blood, tissue and organ samples of dead animals. MERR’s samples are then analyzed by larger labs, which look for trends and correlations to ocean health.

MERR’s annual dolphin count was extremely low last year. Just 38 dolphins were counted on a summer day in Delaware waters, down from 78 in 2006, and 108 in 2005. The data may have been skewed by choppy waters, poor visibility or an ominous third option Thurman doesn’t want to think about.

Tan and pretty, with freckled arms and a thin frame, Thurman shows nary a hint of cat lady eccentricity. She loves animals, but she’s learned it’s best not to get attached. Throwing herself into the situation, like a true emergency medical technician, is the best way to cope with tragic situations.

On her first stranding—a pygmy sperm whale with a broken jaw—Thurman jumped fully clothed into the November ocean and began treatment. “I think that all emergency responders have to go into that mode. Look at all the essential things, find the resources, and do it,” she says.

Still, it was hard to brace for the aftermath. The whale left a calf orphaned and lost at sea. The calf likely didn’t survive.

“I have to remind myself constantly to keep moving,” she says. “But sometimes I get very disturbed by the bigger environmental issues out there. That’s where education comes in, teaching people about the dangers of boat propellers, toxins in the water and air, the trash, plastics, packaging and fishing lines from irresponsible fishermen.”

Even something as innocuous as a balloon causes Thurman great stress. “The animal mistakes it for fish, they eat it, and it just rips up their insides.”

Thurman earned a degree in special education and minored in environmental study at Wheelock College in Boston. She worked at Sussex Consortium, teaching the autistic unit, then later at the Seaside Nature Center. All the while, she soaked up field guides, classes and workshops to hone her knowledge about marine animals.

Thurman created MERR in 2000 after several years of doing the same work as a volunteer. At the time, there was no organized program, facility or funding to handle dead or injured animals. DNREC responded to reports, with Thurman on hand as an unpaid coordinator.

“The previous system was sort of bare bones,” she says. “The goal was just to bury the animals out of sight. It was apparent to me that we needed a facility to take animals for immediate care.”

Funding was scarce initially, and it took time to establish MERR in the Delaware beach community. Still, Thurman took a leap of faith, quitting her full-time job at the nature center. She moved into her current building in September 2004.

Thurman has since secured several state and federal grants, on top of fundraising monies, to help MERR expand its operations. She hopes that in time, she’ll raise enough to build a rehabilitation pool for dolphins instead of risking transport to other facilities. Live rescues often wind up at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Virginia Aquarium Marine Science Center or the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey, for treatment.

Strandings occur up and down Delaware coastlines, Thurman says, and a more expansive treatment facility would help cut down on lengthy transport and save more lives.

“The majority of the strandings are in Sussex County,” Thurman says. “Cape Henlopen and Slaughter Beach get the highest volume. It would be unlikely that we get a whale up the Delaware Bay, although we did get a young humpback whale in 1992.”

Whatever the tide brings in, Thurman will be waiting for it.

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February 2016

Delaware State University will feature the following events and exhibitions during its 2016 Black History Month celebration: Wednesday, Feb. 3 Black Lives Matter Symposium Documentary...

Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
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First Saturdays in the First State Programs and events on the first Saturday of each month. Sites are open, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., check website for details. Free admission. Something new every...

Cost: Free

Where:
First State Heritage Park
121 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd N
43 The Green
Dover, DE  19901
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Sponsor: First State Heritage Park
Telephone: 302-739-9194
Contact Name: Sarah Zimmerman
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The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Rd
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Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

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Penn Museum
3260 South St.
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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Cost: Free

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Kennett Township Building
801 Burrows Run Road
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Delaware State University will feature the following events and exhibitions during its 2016 Black History Month celebration: Wednesday, Feb. 3 Black Lives Matter Symposium Documentary...

Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
View map »

More information

Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
View map »


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Cost: $0-14

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Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Rd
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Delaware State University will feature the following events and exhibitions during its 2016 Black History Month celebration: Wednesday, Feb. 3 Black Lives Matter Symposium Documentary...

Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
View map »

More information

Our Winter Group Show features oil paintings by Rosemary Castiglioni, Jim Gears and Mary Ann Weselyk. Still-life paintings with subtle color variations by...

Cost: Free

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The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Cost: Call for information.

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
View map »


Telephone: 302-629-6611x2446
Contact Name: Nanticoke's Diabetes Education Department
Website »

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Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
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Hagley Museum
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Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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East Coast Garden Center is holding our 2nd Annual Indoor Farmer's Market starting Nov. 10 from noon to 3 p.m. It wil be held every Tuesday till April 26, 2016. We have 20...

Cost: Depends on what you purchase

Where:
East Coast Garden Center
30336 Cordrey Rd
Millsboro, DE  19966
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Sponsor: Garden Center
Telephone: 302-945-3489
Contact Name: Valery Cordrey
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Cost: $10

Where:
Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church
500 McKennans Church Rd
Room 206
Wilmington, DE  19808
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Join us every Tuesday for this fun and educational enrichment activity. Students will learn to draw pictures from a variety of themes, including woodland animals, creatures by the sea, creepy...

Cost: $10

Where:
Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church
500 McKennans Church Rd
Room 206
Wilmington, DE  19808
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Participants must be at least 18 years old to register and be able to attend all sessions. For more information, contact Terry Towne, RN, at 744-6724, or teresa_towne@bayhealth.org...

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Bayhealth Kent General
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640 S. State St.
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The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
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View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Delaware State University will feature the following events and exhibitions during its 2016 Black History Month celebration: Wednesday, Feb. 3 Black Lives Matter Symposium Documentary...

Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
View map »

More information

Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
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View map »


Website »

More information

Two-hour guided tours are offered at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Guests will visit Eleutherian Mills Residence, the first du Pont family home built in America; the First Office...

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201 Hagley Creek Rd
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View map »


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Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
Website »

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Cost: Free

Where:
, DE


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
Website »

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Cost: Free

Where:
Kimmel Center - Commonwealth Plaza
300 S. Broad St.
Philadelphia, PA  19102
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Sponsor: Kimmel Center
Website »

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A successful writer of Broadway thrillers is struggling to overcome a dry spell when he receives a script from a student —a potential Broadway hit. Thereafter suspense...

Where:
, DE

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, DE

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, DE

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Show Less...

Delaware State University will feature the following events and exhibitions during its 2016 Black History Month celebration: Wednesday, Feb. 3 Black Lives Matter Symposium Documentary...

Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
View map »

More information

Our Winter Group Show features oil paintings by Rosemary Castiglioni, Jim Gears and Mary Ann Weselyk. Still-life paintings with subtle color variations by...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
View map »


Website »

More information

Two-hour guided tours are offered at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Guests will visit Eleutherian Mills Residence, the first du Pont family home built in America; the First Office...

Cost: $0-14

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Rd
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
Website »

More information

This art exhibit features fine art works and three dimensional pieces that embrace the subject “red.” Artist are free to use their imagination and creativity, so works will include...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Gibby Center for the Arts
51 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
View map »


Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
Website »

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For more information, please contact: Dave Ruffner ​Rehoboth Beach Film Society 107 Truitt Ave. Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 302-645-9095, ext. 4 administrator@rehobothfilm.com...

Cost: Free

Where:
, DE


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
Website »

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Nanticoke Memorial Hospital offers childbirth classes on Thursdays from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Ground Floor Conference Room. The class will meet each Thursday for a total of five...

Cost: $50

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Rd.
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-629-6611 ext. 2540
Contact Name: Maternal Child Health Clinical Educator
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Regional artists Carol Tippit Woolworth, Catherine Drabkin, Pahl Alexander Hluchan, Colleen Randall and Dan Jackson explore the concept of place—physical, emotional and spiritual—in...

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Cost: Free

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The Station Gallery
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View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

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Cost: $13

Where:
Pennsylvania Convention Center
1101 Arch St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
View map »

More information

Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
View map »


Website »

More information

Two-hour guided tours are offered at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Guests will visit Eleutherian Mills Residence, the first du Pont family home built in America; the First Office...

Cost: $0-14

Where:
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201 Hagley Creek Rd
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
Website »

More information

This art exhibit features fine art works and three dimensional pieces that embrace the subject “red.” Artist are free to use their imagination and creativity, so works will include...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Gibby Center for the Arts
51 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
View map »


Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

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, DE


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
The Gibby Center for the Arts
51W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
View map »


Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
Website »

More information

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Cost: $15–$18

Where:
The Secret Garden
47 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
View map »


Sponsor: The Everett Theatre
Telephone: 302-540-8561
Contact Name: Chris Everett
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Cost: 0.00

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Bayhealth Kent General Hospital
640 S. State Street
Private Dining Room #3
Dover, DE  19901
View map »


Telephone: 800-855-2CALLGA
Website »

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Cost: Free

Where:
First State Heritage Park
The Old State House
25 The Green
Dover, DE  19901
View map »


Sponsor: First State Heritage Park
Telephone: 739-9194
Website »

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Cost: $40

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Humpty's Dumplings
277 N Keswick Ave
Glenside, PA  19038
View map »


Sponsor: Creative Paint Nites
Telephone: 267-312-8339
Contact Name: Charisse R McGill
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, DE

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Where:
, DE

More information

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Show Less...

Our Winter Group Show features oil paintings by Rosemary Castiglioni, Jim Gears and Mary Ann Weselyk. Still-life paintings with subtle color variations by...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Features activities and crafts that help visitors learn about local and national political roles in environmental conservation. Visitors can learn about the battle that politicians fought for a...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
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The Philly Home Show will inspire your inner HGTV star at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia from Feb. 12–14 and 19–21. The show will feature highly interactive...

Cost: $13

Where:
Pennsylvania Convention Center
1101 Arch St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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What was behind the legendary story of King Midas and his golden touch? That is the question to be answered—not with chests full of gold, but with a spectacular array of ancient artifacts,...

Cost: Adults $20; seniors $18; students (with ID) $15; children (ages 6–17) $15

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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Guests can explore three floors of exhibitions in the Visitor Center, stroll along the river through dozens of historic structures from the Industrial Revolution, and explore the gardens and...

Cost: $0-14

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Rd
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
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Penn Museum opens the world premiere exhibition The Golden Age of King Midas—featuring ancient treasures on loan from the Republic of Turkey—with a spectacular daylong public...

Cost: $15

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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This art exhibit features fine art works and three dimensional pieces that embrace the subject “red.” Artist are free to use their imagination and creativity, so works will include...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Gibby Center for the Arts
51 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
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For more information, please contact: Dave Ruffner ​Rehoboth Beach Film Society 107 Truitt Ave. Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 302-645-9095, ext. 4 administrator@rehobothfilm.com...

Cost: Free

Where:
, DE


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society and CAMP Rehoboth will co-present "Tab Hunter Confidential" and "Portrait of a Serial Monogamist" as part of its annual Another Take...

Cost: $8

Where:
Metropolitan Community Church
19369 Plantation Rd.
Rehoboth Beach, DE  19971
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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"La Sylphide" shares the beautiful and romantic story of our hero, James—a young Scottish farmer who, on the eve of hid wedding, abandons his betrothed, Effie, after being...

Cost: $25

Where:
Salesanium School
1801 North Broom St.
Wilmington, DE  19802
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Sponsor: Academy of International Ballet
Telephone: 1-866-908-5666
Contact Name: Denis Gronostayskiy
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Venture back with us for an evening where we re-imagine the Victorian Industrial Age as seen through our steam-powered, futuristic goggles.  Our biggest fundraiser of the year and all proceeds...

Cost: $100-$110

Where:
Smyrna Opera House
7 West South Street
Smyrna, DE  19977
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A spoiled orphan girl is sent to live with her uncle on the Yorkshire moors and discovers renewed life, for herself and her sickly cousin, in bringing her dead aunt’s secret garden back to...

Cost: $15–$18

Where:
The Secret Garden
47 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Everett Theatre
Telephone: 302-540-8561
Contact Name: Chris Everett
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Location: St. Mark’s High School, 2501 Pike Creek Road, Wilmington Time: Registration: 11:30 a.m. Race: 12:30 p.m. Fee: $25 (until Thursday, Feb. 11), $35 after and day of event...

Where:
, DE

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Location: Beebe Healthcare’s Medical Center, 424 Savannah Road, Lewes Date: Saturday, Feb. 13 (and the second Saturday of each month) Time: 9 a.m. Fee: Free For more...

Where:
, DE

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Ditch the winter whites for a world of dazzling color at Longwood Gardens, where you can stroll through thousands of orchids in bloom. Kennett Square, www.longwoodgardens.org 

Where:
, DE

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A successful writer of Broadway thrillers is struggling to overcome a dry spell when he receives a script from a student —a potential Broadway hit. Thereafter suspense...

Where:
, DE

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Regional artists Carol Tippit Woolworth, Catherine Drabkin, Pahl Alexander Hluchan, Colleen Randall and Dan Jackson explore the concept of place—physical, emotional and spiritual—in...

Where:
, DE

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