Student Assists with Rescue of Stranded Pilot Whales

On September 1, 2012, the Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC) provided me with a rare and unforgettable opportunity to assist with the rescue of stranded short-finned pilot whales.  Earlier that day, a pod of 22 pilot whales beached themselves at Avalon State Park in Ft. Pierce, Florida.  MMC rushed to the scene to assist with the mass stranding after receiving a call from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI).

I arrived on the beach later that afternoon and was directed to help transport the whales using a unique dolphin and whale stretcher.  We moved the first of five juvenile pilot whales off the beach to a rescue truck destined for the nearby critical care facility at HBOI.

Pilot Whale Initial Acclimation + Exam sm

Following in my truck, I arrived at the facility to witness veterinarians and experienced staff members wading with the whales in a shallow pool at the center of the facility.  At this stage, the animals had already been weighed, tagged, and provided antibiotics to fight infection.  While absorbing the experience from the side of the pool, the director of the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Program (MMRC) Steve McCulloch called me into the water.  I was shocked at the offer and couldn’t refuse.  He gave me a brief crash course in animal rehabilitation and subsequently placed one of the orphaned whales in my care once he was confident in my abilities.  I slowly introduced the wild whale (technically adolphin considering its taxonomic classification in the Family Delphinidae) to its new enclosure, while making occasional eye contact and lightly gripping its pectoral fin, hoping to provide a sense of reassurance and commonality.

I spent hours assisting the orphaned whales in the pool, never losing sight of the momentous opportunity I was provided to play an active role in some of the most humble interactions between marine mammals and human beings.  As day turned to night, everyone was called out of the water.  It was time to see if the animals were stable enough to swim by themselves.  To the relief of all, they managed to stay afloat, bringing their blowholes above the surface of the water to breathe periodically.  Although extremely weak from their ordeal, they maintained a loose group and set a slow pace around the perimeter of the pool.

Elated by this small victory, I picked up a clipboard and spent the first night collecting critical data on respiration rates for the veterinarians and rehabilitation experts.  The information was crucial to the rehabilitation effort, because it served as a baseline for evaluating the overall health of the animals in our care and also acted as an early warning sign should the animals’ condition start to deteriorate.

I spent the next two days assisting HBOI in various tasks, all focused on saving the lives of the whales in our care.  These tasks included transporting supplies, sanitizing equipment, maintaining facilities, learning how to prepare diets, and training incoming volunteers to identify the animals and collect data.  I also had the privilege to assist in tube feeding the whales.  “Tubing” involved making special whale “milkshakes” and pouring the mixture down a tube into their stomachs.  This procedure was necessary to ensure the hydration and proper nutrition of the whales, since they had likely never been asked to consume dead fish, much less accept hand feeding.  Take it from my experience, there’s nothing natural about sticking your hand into a wild animal’s mouth, past rows of sharp teeth, but the process was critical to their survival.

Although there was no shortage of learning experiences during my stay at HBOI, learning to put my feelings on hold was perhaps the most helpful.  A stranding is no time to allow emotions to get the best of your judgment and professionalism.  Keeping this in mind, I was able to effectively absorb and retain information, complete all tasks with equal motivation, and take a measured approach to an emergency.

It was a sincere privilege to work with the remarkably selfless group of animal experts and volunteers of MMC, HBOI, and other rescue groups in what became an inspiring and life-changing event.  Together, we saved the lives of the pilot whales in our care, and thereby created an everlasting bond between animals and the human beings that reached out to help them in a selfless act of dedication.

 By: Ethan Kleinschmidt, MPS Graduate Student

Masters of Professional Science: Marine Mammal Science
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