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Joseph R. Geraci, expert in marine mammal medicine and National Aquarium official, dies

Dr. Joseph R Geraci, a scientist and veterinarian who was a leading expert in marine mammal medicine and aquatic wildlife conservation, died of cancer Thursday at his Leesburg, Va. home. The former Otterbein resident was 77.

A former official of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, he was professor in the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Department of Pathology. He was proponent of teaching aquarium visitors about sea life and the issues affecting it.

In his four decades in the field, Dr. Geraci led research teams from the Arctic to the tropics to study the health of marine mammals and their environment.

Born in Lawrence, Mass., he was the son of Michael Geraci, a telephone lineman, and his wife, Josephine, a homemaker. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree and master's degree at Suffolk University and was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. He earned a doctorate at McGill University at its Institute of Oceanography in Montreal. He also studied ichthyology at New York University.

From 1973 to 1995 he was a professor at the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College and directed its marine mammal program. He was a clinical professor at Tufts University from 1994 to 1996..

He had advised the International Whaling Commission and government agencies in Canada, Spain, Brazil and the United States.

"He had a extraordinary compassion for the animals and the ecosystem in which they lived, but also he had an astounding compassion for those he worked with," said Glenn Page, a friend and president of SustainaMetrix. "He had an exceedingly high expectation for everyone, including himself.

"He had a smile that inspired you," Paige said. "It would light up the room. Behind that smile was an inspiration that would bring the very best out of you."

In 1997 Dr. Geraci moved to Baltimore and became the National Aquarium's deputy executive director. Baltimore Sun reporter Frank Roylance wrote in a lengthy profile that "Geraci has led investigations of marine mammal deaths in Canada, the North Sea, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, including the 1987 probe of the deaths of more than 700 bottlenose dolphins along the East Coast."

At the time of his appointment in Baltimore, Dr. Geraci said he wanted to make the aquarium's visitors feel closer to the Chesapeake Bay.

"There's a lot we can do, because we have such a wide audience, to expose visitors to some of the exciting things happening on the bay, and to help them understand the role we all play in the health of the bay," he said in 1997.

Dr. Geraci was fascinated with aquariums throughout his life. He had also been curator for the New York and Montreal aquariums. He was president of the Mystic Aquarium from 2005 to 2006.

"Trim and athletic-looking, Geraci seems a bit caged in his aquarium office — a modest cubicle with a million-dollar view of the Inner Harbor," the 1997 Sun article said.

Dr. Geraci discovered that the aquarium had some issues. "He found the seals' health was being propped up with salt pills and antibiotics, but they still showed signs of stress," The Sun wrote. "Geraci had the aquarium replace their pool's fresh water with a colder synthetic sea water."

He said in 1997, "There is no collection of seals anywhere that is in better condition."

He also faced other issues. "In 1991, a dolphin struck one of the beluga whales, which died. Geraci encouraged the aquarium's decision to send the belugas on permanent 'breeding loan' to Sea World in Texas. Beyond the risk of injury, the two species simply weren't designed to cohabit, he said."

Under his scientific guidance, the aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Program cared for numerous stranded animals, including turtles and pygmy sperm whales. Many were returned to their natural habitats.

"While we rehabilitate them, we can use the opportunity to educate visitors and write a powerful conservation message," he said in 1997. "One of the clearest came from Inky, a pygmy sperm whale rescued in 1994. Inky was found to have a digestive blockage caused by plastic trash and balloons it had eaten."

Dr. Geraci called the National Aquarium in Baltimore "the biggest classroom I've ever taught in." He said that while he wanted Aquarium patrons to have a pleasant visit, he also wanted them to learn something about the bay, its physics and chemistry.

He was appointed to the National Academy of Science's Committee to study the effects on marine mammals of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Joe was a warm, down-to-earth scientist," said Mark Donovan, a friend and colleague. "He saw the best in everyone and thought that everyone had something to offer. I recall many lively conversations with him. ... He was as comfortable in the opera hall as he was aboard an ocean research vessel."

Dr. Geraci has wrote and co-wrote more than 120 journal articles, seven books and 21 book chapters. He was the founding editor of the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Plans for a memorial service at the University of Maryland School of Medicine are incomplete.

Survivors include his wife of 10 years, Laurie Allen, a wildlife biologist; a son, Michael Geraci of Ontario, Canada; two daughters, Johanna Geraci and Karen Geraci, also of Ontario; a brother, Philip Geraci of Arizona; and six grandchildren. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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