About a dozen Fisheries and Oceans Canada officers spent the better part of Tuesday morning at Departure Bay Beach with an inflatable pilot whale to get hands-on training on how to re-float a beached cetacean.
The training, part of the marine mammal response initiative, which operates under the federal government’s $1.5-billion oceans protection plan, teaches how to stabilize a whale that has washed up on a beach, which may be in distress, and return it to the water.
“We’re doing a live stranding cetacean situation exercise, where we’ve got equipment that we’ve purchased through the oceans protection plan to make us more successful across the coast if we get a mid-size cetacean stranding, such as a killer whale size,” said Paul Cottrell, Department of Fisheries and Oceans marine animal rescue coordinator.
The trainees had to fill a life-size pilot whale dummy with water and air and then assemble a cradle under the animal, inflate flotation pontoons and move the animal into the water. The process involved digging a trench under the animal and carefully rolling it from side to side, while protecting its fins, to position and assemble the cradle underneath it. Partially filling the dummy with water gives some sense of the weight they will encounter in a live situation.
It took about 90 minutes to complete the task.
Kirsty Walde, fisheries senior compliance officer with DFO’s marine aquaculture unit in Campbell River, led Tuesday’s training exercise.
“The training is extremely important,” Walde said. “We’re seeing more and more live strandings. We’re seeing, with increased abundance of humpback whales for example, we are seeing, unfortunately, either live strandings or, potentially, deaths.”
She said the exercise went well after a “rocky start.”
“One of our pumps was stolen out the back of our truck and we had difficulties filling our whale this morning, but we … got another pump from [Pacific Biological Station] and we were able to fill our whale and actually the plan went according to how we had trained for it yesterday, for the most part, and the whale was released, so that was a success,” Walde said.
Genevieve Cauffope, Oceans Protection Plan senior compliance program officer for conservation and protection, oversaw and took part in Tuesday’s training operation.
“We’re building capacity and fisheries officers are learning how to use the equipment,” Cauffope said. “It was a team of 10, which was a big team, but there was strong leadership. It was very cohesive and they made it work really well.”
A set of equipment will likely be kept in Nanaimo. Other sets will be sent to Haida Gwaii, Prince Rupert, the central coast, Tofino, Port Hardy and on the south coast between Victoria and Vancouver.
“We’ve been going around the coast training fisheries officers, fisheries guardians and key experts with DFO and other government agencies to make sure if we do get these live strandings and we have the equipment in these key areas along the coast we’re able to get out and rescue these animals,” Cottrell said. “It increases our likelihood of success if we can get out and use this equipment and re-float animals that have live stranded.”
Four marine rescue kits are on hand now with three more on the way, which will allow rescue teams to deploy almost anywhere on the B.C. coast.
B.C. typically gets about five to 10 live strandings per year. B.C. has a large variety of cetaceans and animals that become stranded include Pacific white-sided dolphins, harbour porpoises, juvenile minke whales, grey and humpback whale calves and killer whales.
How fast a rescue team can respond to save and animal depends in part on how quickly it receives notification from the public.
“With cetacean incidents, whether it’s an entangled animal, distressed, live stranding, it’s so important for the public, who are the eyes and ears out there, to call our 1-800-465-4336 marine animal response line because then we’re able to respond as quickly as possible and increases our likelihood of success,” Cottrell said. “If we know about it we can get there really quickly.”