Veterinarians and team members worked overnight at Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre to save a baby false killer whale rescued from Chestermanâ€™s Beach Thursday.
The male calf, which head Aquarium vet Dr. Martin Haulena estimates to be four to six weeks old, is in poor condition with several lacerations and wounds along his body, likely from stranding.
He is too weak to swim on his own; members of the Aquarium’s rescue team first held him in their arms in a pool then transferred him to a specially designed floating sling that supports his weight. Treatment â€” including fluids, antibiotics and formula designed just for marine mammals â€” has already begun.
The Rescue Centre’s team is working around-the-clock to provide critical care to the distressed cetacean.
"Now the hard work begins to save this false killer whale," said Dr. Martin Haulena, Vancouver Aquarium head veterinarian. "The transport went well but he is in critical condition and there were some worrying dips in his heart rate and respiration last night. We’ve started treatment and have conducted diagnostic tests. The hope is that he begins to recover and slowly gain weight."
"The biggest hurdles are getting him to the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre for critical care and the first 24 hours," said Haulena.
"He’s very young, his teeth haven’t erupted which indicates he was still nursing from his mother. Historically, stranded cetaceans have had a low chance of survival. It’s always touch-and-go with young marine mammals who have become separated from their mothers, and rescuing a false killer whale is a new experience for us â€” very few veterinarians and other professionals around-the-world have experience rehabilitating stranded false killer whale calves."
A member of the dolphin family, the false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens) is a distinct species from the more commonly known killer whale (Orcinus orca). Globally widespread, but locally uncommon, false killer whales are an open ocean species found in the tropics in all oceans of the world, and only occasionally spotted in B.C. waters.
For now, the team is focused on the animal’s recovery.
"We will continue to provide critical care in the hope that he improves," said Haulena. "It is because of the team’s experience with cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium that the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is the only marine mammal rescue facility in Canada with the expertise to save whales and dolphins. It’s the only real hope for stranded marine mammals."
The marine mammal, about six feet in length, washed ashore in the fog at mid Chestermanâ€™s. After efforts to tug him back into deeper water didnâ€™t work, rescuers cradled him for hours in a makeshift sling made from two beach towels.
A joint vessel patrol between government agencies turned into a joint rescue effort in an effort to rescue the juvenile Pseudorca.
The distressed cetacean appeared to have scratches on its nose and a crescent-shaped scar not far from its blowhole.
The creature struggled very little. Its eyes closed, it breathed in sharp intakes through its blowhole at irregular intervals. Rescuers cradled it in two beach towels, keeping it in the water with its blowhole above water and splashing it to keep it from drying out.
â€œItâ€™s a very young animal, a calf, about two metres in length, with no erupted teeth – a very young animal that got separated from its mother,â€ said Paul Cottrell, marine mammal coordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
â€œThe animalâ€™s not in super shape.â€
Cottrell said the Pseudorca is rare in British Columbia waters, usually found further south.
The rescuers were in good spirits at mid-day Thursday.
â€œItâ€™s a little bit of strain on the back and fingers and toes are getting cold, but itâ€™s worth it,â€ said Brad Bowman, a Duncan-based natural resource officer with the Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. He was taking part in a joint vessel patrol when the unusual rescue came up.
â€œItâ€™s rewarding …you get to help an animal out when itâ€™s in need,â€ said Kayla Topping of the District of Tofino bylaw enforcement department, who was there with Tarni Jacobsen, also holding the towels, along with Tanya Dowdall, a park warden with Parks Canada, and Denise Koshowski, a lead field supervisor for Tofino Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
The Pseudorca crassidens is the third-largest member of the oceanic dolphin family. They can reach lengths up to 20 feet, with weights of 4,900 pounds.
Their numbers have dwindled in recent years, a cetacean that is considered endangered in some habitats.
â€œTheyâ€™re very social, very friendly, probably pretty smart bunch,â€ said Dr. Jim Darling, a director of the Pacific Wildlife Foundation.
The biologist was walking on the beach with his dog when he came across the rescue underway.
â€œIt was a great response. Everybodyâ€™s doing exactly the right thing, and theyâ€™ve got the right people involved.â€