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To Save a Whale

No one knew what to make of the mysterious sea creature that had washed up on a Vancouver Island beach—but they knew it needed help.

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“We look for illegal campers lying on the beach, or campfires, partying, who knows—anything.”

Early-morning surfers and beach walkers found it first. The animal—a dolphin? a pilot whale?—was as long as a surfboard and lay heavily in the shallows. Its eyes were closed, but it was alive, clasping and unclasping its blowhole as if grasping to take in air.

A sea creature in need of help could do worse than to end up on Chesterman Beach. Just five minutes from Tofino, a town on the west coast of Vancouver Island famous for its earth-hipster vibe, the beach is visited by people at all hours and in all weather. Waves from the open Pacific Ocean endlessly crash ashore to spread across the sand like hands smoothing a bedsheet. At the tide line you might find whips of bull kelp, a trembling moon jellyfish or a mussel shell the size of a human heart. You might also find a stranded whale.

Not knowing any more than that the animal should not be on land, a surfer towed the aquatic visitor by its tail into deeper water. But when he set the creature free, it only swirled helplessly in the waves until it was stranded again.

At 9:17 a.m. on July 10, 2014, bylaw enforcement officers Rob Letts and Tarni Jacobsen arrived at Chesterman for a routine sweep. “We look for illegal campers lying on the beach, or campfires, partying, who knows—anything,” says Jacobsen. “It’s summer in Tofino.”

Instead, a tourist came out of the morning fog. “There’s a dolphin stranded on the beach,” he said.

A small group of people were gathered around a lump at the water’s edge. No one knew what the creature was—a beaked whale? a porpoise?—but there was no doubt it was suffering. Its chin (technically the rostrum) and flippers were badly scraped and bleeding.

The officers soon reached two crucial organizations. One was the B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network, which is governed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and last year alone received 323 reports of sea animals in distress. The other was the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, the only such facility in Canada equipped to handle the porpoises, dolphins and whales that are together known as cetaceans.

Jacobsen emailed photos of the animal to the experts, while Letts and two volunteers floated the stranded creature in the shallows, letting the water take its weight.

The rescue was under way.

It so happened that, at a restaurant two minutes’ drive away, staff from the RCMP and DFO, as well as park rangers and conservation officers, were having breakfast.

When fishery officer Denise Koshowski got the alert that there was a mysterious cetacean stranded on Chesterman Beach, she hadn’t even ordered. Within minutes, Koshowski and natural resource officer Brad Bowman were on the scene, soon joined by bylaw office summer student Kayla Topping. Everyone kicked off their shoes and boots, rolled up their pant legs and waded into the crashing waves.

“Most of the time you saw a big wave come and everyone braced for the shock,” Bowman says. “Then you put your hand over the blowhole so water didn’t get in.”

Koshowski is a former Vancouver Aquarium volunteer with veterinary training. She turned to the growing group of onlookers and hollered, “Does anyone have any towels?”

Someone ran to a cottage, and soon the animal was suspended in a makeshift sling of beach towels. The team would stay in the waves for the next five hours, until their bones ached and fingers cramped. Not that anyone complained. “Even in the summer, in Tofino, the ocean’s not warm,” says Bowman. “So, yeah, it was cold. I don’t know. I didn’t really care.”

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“That’s not a porpoise. That’s a false killer whale.”

Two hundred kilometres away as the raven flies, Dr. Marty Haulena was putting together a marine mammal emergency team with his trademark calm. “I don’t remember the last time my excitement level got amped up,” he deadpans.

As head veterinarian for the Vancouver Aquarium and Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, Haulena knows the chances of a successful rescue are slim: only 10 per cent of beached whales survive, and the first 24 hours are critical.

“Time is of the essence,” Haulena says. “By the time these guys hit the beach, bad things have already happened. Getting onto the beach causes a whole other set of bad things: pulmonary compression, vascular compromise, kidney failure, muscle damage, all sorts of trauma from rocks and shellfish and sharp things and bird pecks and animals and people handling.”

By 11:30 a.m., Haulena had assigned two veterinary medics and a videog­rapher to jump aboard a chartered float plane from Vancouver to Tofino.

Back at Chesterman Beach, a moment of serendipity: Jim Darling, a marine biologist renowned for groundbreaking research on grey and humpback whales, just happened to be walking his dog when he spied a group of uniformed women and men holding a sea mammal in a terry towel sling.

“My first thought was that it was a harbour porpoise,” Darling says. “But then you look at the fin and some other things, and you think, Hmm.” His second thought was something much more unlikely, that it might be a young false killer whale.

False killer whales, which are in the same family as dolphins and killer whales (a.k.a. orcas), weren’t recorded in Canada until 1987. That summer, a dozen of them made a rare trip north to Washington’s Puget Sound. Not long afterwards, two lone whales got stranded on B.C. shores. One survived and was nicknamed Rufus. Between 1988 and early 1990, he was seen on the west coast of Vancouver Island, often following the Lady Rose, a 50-year-old freight and passenger ferry.

In early 1990, Rufus disappeared. Then a false killer whale, dubbed Willy, showed up near Vancouver. John Ford, now the head of the DFO Cetacean Research Program in Nanaimo, B.C., made the connection: in April 1990, the Lady Rose had sailed 300 kilometres to Vancouver for a steamship reunion. Rufus had presumably followed, then stayed on and become Willy.

One hundred and fifteen false killer whale sightings have been recorded in B.C., but Ford suspects that every one of those reports-the last one was in 2004-was of Rufus/Willy. If so, false killer whales are almost unimaginably rare in Canadian waters.

At the same time that Darling was identifying the species on Chesterman Beach, experts at the DFO and Vancouver Aquarium were studying the photos sent from the rescue site. In all three places, the same eureka moment played out: “That’s not a porpoise. That’s a false killer whale.”

It was Dr. Justin Rosenberg’s fourth day on the job as a veterinary fellow at the Vancouver Aquarium when he and veterinary technologist Shanie Fradette reached Chesterman Beach after landing in Tofino. Looking out at the forests and surf, Rosenberg suddenly felt a long way from the job he had left only a week before, treating house pets at a clinic in Denver.

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“Sometimes the small ones are quite resilient. They have this spark of life.”

It was just after 1 p.m. Earlier, the whale had occasionally flipped his tail or made the quiet clicking noises the animals use for echolocation. He was silent now. He’d stopped moving.

“He was clearly very, very distressed. His respirations were much higher than they should be. His eyes were closed, and there really wasn’t much energy in him,” says Rosenberg. The two medics continued their assessment. The whale had “peanut head,” named for a thinning behind the skull in underweight cetaceans. He also had no teeth, meaning he was so new to the world that he should still have been suckling from his mother.

They gave him sedatives, an anti-inflammatory and an antibiotic to protect his lungs from the infections that often occur when whales inhale water. The option of leaving the infant to die, or of euthanasia, didn’t enter their discussions. “You need to start hopeful,” says Fradette in her mild Quebec accent. “Sometimes the small ones are quite resilient. They have this spark of life.”

It was two anxious hours before Fradette and Rosenberg got the go-ahead to take the whale back to Vancouver. Only the DFO can issue transport permits to move marine mammals, and even in an emergency, the process is complicated. “Our first priority is to try to see if we can reunite the animal with its mom to have a long life in the wild,” says Paul Cottrell, marine mammals coordinator for the DFO Pacific Region.

Stranded whales are handled case by case, and the response can range from leaving the animal to die to caring for it in captivity. In this instance, calls went out to whale-watching compan­ies and other Tofino-area mariners. The dense fog had kept most boats in harbour that morning, but no false killer whales were reported in the area.

The DFO then considered moving the whale to a sheltered bay, away from the powerful surf of Chesterman Beach, for rehabilitation in a wild environment. Reports from the rescue site, however, convinced them that the animal would likely die without intensive medical intervention.

“You have to look at the consequences. A young animal this age is likely not releasable, so it’s going to be in captivity,” says Cottrell. In other words, taking the whale to Vancouver might be his best chance at survival, but the decision could be irreversible: he might never live in the wild again. “You have to have all the facts, and you have to make the right decision at the right time,” says Cottrell.

If the whale were rescued, he would be heading for a city in which whales in captivity had flared into a political firestorm.

In the wake of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which critically examined the lives of killer whales in American theme parks, the Vancouver Aquarium came under scrutiny. Several politicians stated publicly that the aquarium should phase out its captive cetacean program, and a poll showed that a small majority of Vancouverites opposed keeping whales and dolphins for public display.

The Vancouver Aquarium is Canada’s oldest public facility of its kind and in 1964 became the first in the world to capture and display a killer whale (it was captured inadvertently when it survived an attempted harpooning and was displayed to the public at a nearby shipyard for just one day). In 1996, the aquarium was also the world’s first to declare that it would no longer capture wild cet­aceans for its exhibits; and in 2001, it phased out its captive killer whale program, concluding that the animals required larger pools than the facility could provide. It continues to display smaller cetaceans, like belugas, porpoises and dolphins.

Complicating the captivity issue was the question of rescued animals. In 2002, the aquarium was instrumental in rehabilitating Springer, an orphaned killer whale that was ultim­ately reunited with her family; in 2013, she was seen in the wild with a calf of her own. That same year, staff successfully reintroduced a second cetacean to the wild, a harbour porpoise called Levi. But not every rescued animal can return to the open ocean. Two other porpoises, Jack and Daisy, were orphaned too young to have the necessary skills to survive in nature and will live out their lives at the aquarium.

Haulena argues that you can’t have rescues without the possibility of captivity, and that experience with captive whales is what has made rescues possible. “If you want to have a successful cetacean rehabilitation program, I’m convinced that you cannot do it unless you’ve got folks who deal with cetaceans every day.”

Around 4 p.m.—seven hours into the rescue—the DFO approved a permit to transport the baby false killer whale. The group of onlookers had swelled to dozens, and even New Age crystals had been used to try to ease the whale’s pain. With the help of sedatives, at least, he was visibly less stressed and his breathing had steadied.

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“This is simply the story of saving a whale’s life…”

The next race against time began: to get the whale onto one of the day’s last ferries to the mainland. He was too large for the small planes that fly out of Tofino, which meant a three-hour drive to the ferry terminal on a notoriously curvy road-with a whale under the canopy of Denise Koshowski’s pickup truck.

Just west of the mill town of Port Alberni, Koshowski finally saw the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre van, which had started driving from Vancouver toward Tofino just after the emergency team took off in their float plane. She flashed her headlights. Soon, a strange roadside attraction was playing out: eight people carrying a whale on a stretcher out the back of a truck and into a kind of cet­acean ambulance.

Then someone said, “I can’t feel the heart rate right now.”

“Everybody was sort of yelling,” recalls natural resource officer Brad Bowman, who had come along to help move the whale. “Get water! Get this! Get that!”

The moment passed just as quickly. The medics found the animal’s pulse again, and he was put on an IV drip of fluids and nutrients through a vein in his tail, with a subcutaneous injection between his blowhole and dorsal fin. Blood tests indicated the little whale was dehydrated and had likely been “eating” sea water. He and his minders made the ferry. As it sailed under sunset skies, none of the boat’s hundreds of other passengers were aware that, on a quiet parking deck below their feet, a whale was struggling for his life.

At close to 11 p.m., the team reached the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, tucked out of the public eye at the end of a long pier in Vancouver harbour. Staff weighed the baby whale—who would soon be dubbed Chester, for the beach where he was found—then eased him directly into the arms of two veterinary technicians waiting in an above-ground pool. They would stand in the water and hold him all night.

This is not a story about whales in captivity; this is simply the story of saving a whale’s life. From the outset, however, the experts involved knew that if the whale lived, he would almost certainly be in captivity. He was too young to have learned to survive in the wild, even in the unlikely event that the group of false killer whales he came from could be located.

False killer whales are typically found well offshore in the tropics and other warm ocean waters worldwide. Not a lot is known about their population numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature declares the species “data deficient,” meaning too little research has been done to say how many there are or whether they are threatened with extinction (the United States classifies the Hawaiian Islands population as endangered).

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“We can’t say what goes on in the head of a whale. But we can wonder.”

What is known is that they are a highly social species. In 1966, the cur­ator of marine mammals for Marineland of the Pacific wrote about a false killer whale snared by collectors off the coast of California. The whale’s companions, he said, squealed with alarm and rubbed themselves against the ropes that held the captive. After its delivery to Marineland, the animal raced around the periphery of its pool, endlessly whistling. The next morning it was still swimming in exhausted circles.

Reading this is a shock to modern sensibilities. But the story does change. Just 24 hours later, the captive whale was eating mackerel dir­ectly from an attendant’s hand. It quickly bonded with its human trainers and formed a close relationship with a bottlenose dolphin. It proved so adept at learning that, without training or encouragement, it began to repeat tricks performed by dolphins, including leaping to grasp a large paddle to trigger a camera.

The scientist who wrote about the Marineland whale concluded that false killer whales “rapidly adapted to a captive environment” and showed “a remarkable lack of fear toward new and strange situations.” In the wild, these creatures have been observed offering captured fish not only to each other but to human divers and even people fishing from boats.

For Chester, then, a life in captivity may not be the life that everyone would wish for him. But it is a life.

We can’t say what goes on in the head of a whale. But we can wonder.

When dawn arrived on July 11, Chester had beaten the odds. He had survived the first 24 hours following his rescue. He became a social-media star. He has helped educate thousands of people about the exist­ence of a species that few had heard of before, and scientists around the world are hoping to learn from him. His case likely influenced a municipal park board vote on captive whales at the Vancouver Aquarium-rescued cetaceans will still be permitted.

One hundred days after he was found stranded, Chester was learning to leap, catching raindrops in his mouth and sometimes blocking the ladder when his favourite keepers needed to leave his pool. He has now gained 47 kilograms, been moved to a bigger pool and is no longer a “peanut head.”

The aquarium staff who cared for him on the day of his rescue remember one milestone above all others. It happened on the stillness of the parking deck as the ferry made its steady way across the Strait of Georgia. It was the moment when, for the first time, Chester seemed to show an awareness of the hands being laid on him, the care being taken.

He opened one eye, looked around, closed it again. After that, the rescuers were no longer on their own. Chester the whale had begun to fight for his own life. 

Chester the False Killer Whale later passed away in November 2017 from a bacterial infection.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada