How to Help a Stranded Whale or Dolphin

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Baby orca breaching-Suzanne Burns
Baby orca breaching-Suzanne Burns

Strandings of whales and dolphins (cetaceans) happen worldwide, sometimes in specific and regular locations such as Farewell Spit, Golden Bay in New Zealand but also in random places and at random times. The reasons for them to strand can not always be understood but possible reasons can include:

1) Disorientation in unfamiliar territory-cetaceans use sonar (sound waves) to ‘see’ their environment but unusual topography like sandbars, rapidly shifting sands and tides can be problematic and leave them beached or stuck in unfavourable conditions.

2) An animal is sick or dying– when a whale/dolphin is very ill they will sometimes be very weak and unable to swim properly. If this occurs they are sometimes washed into shallower areas as they are unable to keep themselves buoyant and mobile. Strong waves and tides can push them closer to shore, into harbours and even rivers that connect to the sea. Multiple strandings can occur if they are in a pod or family group. The other members will usually stay with the stricken relative regardless of risk to themselves and hence, multiple strandings can occur.

3) Effects of noise disturbance underwater which can cause an animal to flee an area-seismic activity which includes drilling underwater for oil and gas exploration can cause serious problems for cetaceans. The sound produced from these activities can cause hemorrhaging in the creature’s head and noise can be so unpleasant they flee the area rapidly. Effects of these on the sonar of cetaceans who are extremely acoustically sensitive can sometimes be fatal.

4) Escaping from predators-in areas where large predators like sharks and orcas prevail, smaller whales and dolphins will often flee their attacker but unwittingly strand themselves in the process.

5) Chasing prey close to shore -dolphins sometimes chase schooling fish into shore and can accidentally strand themselves when doing so.

Dall's porpoise -Suzanne Burns
Dall’s porpoise -Suzanne Burns

What to do if you find a Stranded Whale or Dolphin?

It might seem obvious, but the first thing to check is that they are alive! Cetaceans are conscious breathers, we are voluntary. This means they consciously hold their breath when necessary. They do this when diving underwater but will also do this when in an unfamiliar situation/environment and are stressed. A whale or dolphin that appears to not be breathing might actually be holding its breath! Gently touch the blowhole to see if there is any reaction.
Second thing to check if they don’t appear to be breathing is their eye(s). If the eye is closed or not blinking, gently blow on it to see if the animal responds. If it does not respond to these checks it has most likely passed away.
If the animal is breathing or some eye movement is detected you can now proceed. Call the local Coastguard, Fire Brigade, Marine Research centres, Animal Welfare Conservation groups to people who can respond quickly and effectively.
The animal will definitely be very stressed, scared and likely in pain. Water allows these animals to grow large without the constraints of gravity. On land their prodigious size in some cases can cause bone and organ crushing on land and impede their ability to breathe easily.
It is imperative to try and keep the animal as calm as you can. Simple measures to make it as comfortable need to be employed as soon as possible.
Do not have anyone standing in front of the animal or behind. The tail fluke can be powerful and dangerous so keep well clear. The animal has an area in the front of its head called the ‘melon’. The sonar that the animal uses comes from here. They are very sensitive to their immediate environment and any person or object in front of their heads needs to be moved away. A bucket, dog, cloth, person in front of them will cause them unnecessary stress. Please keep this area clear.
To keep animals calm, avoid loud noises, keep dogs and small children away and make no unnecessary movements.
If the animal is on its side, cover it with wet sheets (do not cover the blowhole). Try to dig a shallow trench parallel to its belly, remove the sheets and gently roll the animal into the trench. Ideally use 4-6 people for this.
Keep the flippers tucked down and into its side and dig a trench below each flipper so that they can hang freely and not be crushed.
If the creature is too big to do this or is suctioned to sand, take care not to over exert yourself and injure yourself and others.
Cover the animal in wet sheets or clothing, keep pouring water onto these regularly. DO NOT cover the blowhole, eyes and mouth. DO NOT pour water into the blowhole.
Have a buddy-designate someone to sit next to the animal, by their side, near to their head to gently talk and reassure them.

Pacific white sided dolphin -Suzanne Burns
Pacific white sided dolphin -Suzanne Burns

Once all of these measures have been employed and the animal is as comfortable as you can make it, it now can be seen if the animal can be returned to deeper water or if the tide will come in sufficiently.

If the animal is small enough to move like a dolphin or porpoise and there are enough people, a tarpaulin, sling or pontoon can be used to return it to water.
Care must be taken when moving it, using the tarpaulin, sling or pontoon to support the animal and not to drag or pull at its body, particularly its fins and fluke.
Avoid the mouth and fluke for safety.
Only people with wetsuits should be involved in the refloating and release. Try to time the release with waves for easier release and buoyancy of the animal.
Keep the animal from rough surfaces or rocks on the beach or in the water.
Once the animal is in waist-deep water you can gently rock it from side to side to help it reorientate itself. This should be done with at least 2 people, one on each side and done for as long as possible to familiarise the animal with its environment.
At least half an hour should be spent with each animal and check to ensure it is surfacing to breathe, its body is upright and it can upright itself if rolled over.
If the animal swims back towards shore, slapping the water’s surface or striking a metal object can deter them. If enough people are present a human chain can be used in the water to try and prevent the animal swimming back.
Body language such as tail slapping and open mouth lunging can be signs of aggression. If the animal is acting defensively or aggressively do not risk your own safety.
If a small boat, inflatable or kayak is available these can also be used to guide the animal out to deeper water.

Humpback whale fluke -Suzanne Burns
Humpback whale fluke -Suzanne Burns

The New Zealand Sea Lion – A Conservation Comeback and Conundrum

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Adult female New Zealand sea lion
Adult female New Zealand sea lion

Walking through the undulating dunes, I saw a big furry creature swaddled in the couch grass. The shaggy beast looked a lot like a bear, but we were in the wrong domain for such a creature. I was out leading a tour group in my capacity as a wildlife guide. The location was South Island, New Zealand and the animal that lay before us was the New Zealand Sea Lion, which is genetically related to bears. A thick pelt of fur envelopes their body and the male acquires an impressive mane around his neck as he matures. Like his terrestrial cousin, the New Zealand Sea Lion is a top predator: His quarry tends to be fish, squid, octopus, crabs and the occasional penguin.

Adult male sea lion
Adult male sea lion

On Sea lions, the razor-sharp claws of a bear have been sheathed inside a membranous flipper. This flipper propels them through their watery lair, as well as allowing them to capture prey. The Sea Lion also has a thick layer of blubber, which insulates it from the frigid water as it descends to deeper realms.Much of the population lives on the subantarctic Campbell and Auckland Islands, with a tiny population living on the mainland. The species’ conservation status is listed as ‘’nationally critical’’– the highest threat status given in New Zealand. In short, the New Zealand Sea Lion is one of the most threatened Sea Lions in the world, and quite possibly the rarest.

Waiting for Mum
Waiting for Mum


No humans lived in New Zealand until about 1,000 years ago, when Maori tribes arrived from Polynesia and settled around the country, subsisting on various plants and animals. Over time all of the Sea Lions were decimated for food and fur– first by the Maori and later by European settlers. By the 1800s, the Sea Lion was extinct in New Zealand. In 1993, a lone female New Zealand Sea Lion was found by a farmer at Taieri Mouth, on the lower South Island. The farmer contacted the Department of Conservation, confused about the “blonde seal” he found on his property. This female (subsequently called “Mum”) had been tagged by researchers as a pup on the Auckland Islands in 1986. For reasons unknown, she’d traveled 435 miles to settle on New Zealand’s Otago peninsula. She also happened to be pregnant. Females are not known to venture far from where they were born, so Mum’s epic journey was all the more remarkable.

Adult female coming ashore
Adult female coming ashore


Mum’s solo journey became a beacon of hope for this flagging species. Males from the subantarctic islands had begun populating the Otago peninsula in the early 1980s. With the arrival of Mum and the birth of her daughter, this was the beginning of a small breeding population. Over the next 17 years Mum produced 11 pups, many of which were female. Each pup born on the South Island is very precious, particularly to the New Zealand Sea Lion Trust and the Department of Conservation. These organizations keep a close watch on the New Zealand Sea Lion population, both on the mainland and the islands. Every Sea Lion pup that has been born on the mainland since 1993 has been tagged and named. Mum’s first pup, named Katya, went on to have 10 pups of her own. When new pups are born, every effort is made to keep them safe from potential threats, including dogs.

Sea lion pup
Sea lion pup


The South Island population has since grown to approximately 160 Sea Lions, but only a tenth or so are female. This skew in the sexes creates an interesting, sometimes lethal social dynamic. When male/female ratios are more natural, a harem system exists: The strongest mature males (or “bulls”) fight for the right to breed with a number of females. This dominant male, known as the beach master, can preside over up to 25 females. This type of harem is often seen around the Auckland and Campbell Islands, where New Zealand Sea Lions are found in greater numbers. On the South coast beaches of the Otago peninsula and the Catlins, the low numbers of female sea lions has resulted in some confusion. Sexually charged males look– sometimes in vain– for females to corral into a harem of their own. Juvenile males look similar to females, being both lighter in color and smaller than the beach masters. Mature males can weigh from 250-400 kgs, while mature females weigh between 100-160 kgs. As the male develops, his fur turns from a light brown/tan color to dark brown and the thick mane around his neck becomes more impressive. Females are very pale by comparison (almost the color of sand), and blend in exceedingly well with their surroundings.

Male with 'harem'
Male with ‘harem’

An amorous male in these areas, having seen a juvenile male approaching his patch, will sometimes approach the young interloper. Their initial exchanges can range from bluff and bluster, to playful interactions, to the older male actually seducing the younger. It’s not unusual along the Otago coast to see a large male surrounded by his “women,” which are actually juvenile or sub-adult males! When a bona fide female is in the area, it can create quite a stir and become a challenging encounter for her. Males sometimes run at her en masse, blocking her path back to the water to escape. She can be particularly vulnerable if she has a young pup with her. In all the excitement, some females have inadvertently been killed from too many males wanting to mate with them. Despite these issues, it’s a positive sign to see New Zealand Sea Lion numbers slowly but surely increasing. Since Mum arrived on the mainland, an unrelated female named Marea settled in the Catlins in 2006 and proceeded to breed there. Their offspring have now established small breeding populations on South Island as well as Stewart Island, a small inhabited island located to the south.

Juvenile male
Juvenile male


In the subantarctic islands the numbers of New Zealand Sea Lions has been steadily dropping. The breeding population decreased by 50% between 2000 and 2015, and there are now only around 9,000 remaining. The reasons for the decline are numerous. There’s a large squid fishing industry off Auckland and Campbell Islands, where Sea Lion deaths have been caused by accidental bycatch in fishing nets and trawls. When a female dies, she most likely orphans a pup onshore, who will die without her. She’s also likely to be pregnant with another pup. Two other serious problems are disease and starvation. In 1998 an outbreak of an unknown disease caused the deaths of over 50% of the pups and 20% of the females in the Auckland Islands. In 2002 and 2003 the Sea Lions suffered heavy mortalities due to the bacterial infection Klebsiella pneumoniae. This caused the deaths of 32% of the pups within the first few months of life in 2002 and 21% in 2003.

Adult female
Adult female

Reduced prey availability is another major cause of adult and pup mortality. A significant death toll was exerted on the Campbell Island population this year, with 58% of the pups dying within the first month. Studies indicated that starvation was responsible for the deaths of 62% of the dead pups that were necropsied. Unfortunately local fisheries target some of the same species that Sea Lions predominantly feed upon. This competition for resources is an issue, particularly with females whose feeding ranges are restricted while their pups are young. At the current rate of Sea Lion decrease around the Auckland and Campbell Islands, there is genuine concern for the future of this beleaguered population.

Sea lion pups
Sea lion pups

Suzanne Burns 2015. Photo credits: Shaun Templeton.

Source: Green Global Travel

Endangered Species Spotlight: Southern Resident Killer Whales

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Princess Angeline (J17) with her new baby (J53) first seen in Oct 2015. J17 was born in 1977. Photo by Centre for Whale Research
Princess Angeline (J17) with her new baby (J53) first seen in Oct 2015. J17 was born in 1977. Photo by Centre for Whale Research

SPECIES: Southern Resident Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

CURRENT RANGE: Pacific North East, around Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Southern Georgia Strait

CURRENT THREATS: Decreased prey availability, boat interactions, environmental contamination


WHERE YOU CAN SEE THEM: Washington and British Columbia

What Are Southern Resident Killer Whales?

Killer whales (a.k.a. orca) are the largest dolphins in the world. They’re also the most dispersed of all dolphin species, being found from Arctic and Antarctic waters to more tropical climes. They were originally called killer whales, as some do actually kill whales. For years orca had a fearsome reputation, falsely believed by many to be man-hunters. Over time, it was seen that orcas are specialist feeders.

Around the west coast of Canada there are three different types of orcas. One type are called Transients (or Bigg’s killer whales), which feed almost exclusively on marine mammals. They are very quiet so as to not scare away potential prey, and tend to have loose family bonds. Offshore orcas travel in large groups and feed far offshore, where they prey upon sleeper sharks (and experience tooth wear due to the sharks’ sandpaper-like skin). Resident orcas feed primarily on fish and squid. They are very vocal and live in tight-knit family units called pods. Pods which share similar dialects belong to the same clan.

One population of resident orcas is called the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). The other, called Northern Residents, are found around Johnstone Strait and Northern British Columbia. Even though Residents and Transients travel through the same areas, they studiously avoid each other. They also have different dialects, hunting techniques, prey and family units. Some scientists believe these orcas may need to be reclassified as separate species or subspecies.

Of all the Resident clans that frequent these waters, the SRKW’s are the most endangered, with just 82 individuals remaining. They have only one clan consisting of 3 pods– named J, K and L pod– which have 28, 19 and 35 members, respectively. Each of these pods is made up of matrilines, comprised of at least one female, her sons and daughters, and the offspring of her daughters.

Adult male orca, Blueberry
Adult male orca, Blueberry

Why are Southern Resident Killer Whales Endangered?

The SRKW’s are the only orca population listed as endangered by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. They suffered heavy losses between 1965-1975, when many members of their families were captured for exhibition in marine parks.

Of all the orcas that were captured during that time, 13 were killed and 45 were sent to various marine parks around the world. Only one of these orcas, Lolita (Tokitae), remains alive today. She currently resides in the Miami Seaquarium. The oldest member of the J pod, “Granny,” is estimated to be 104 years old. She was captured in 1967 along with the rest of her pod, but was considered too old for the marine parks and was eventually released.

Other issues these orcas face include reduced prey availability, boat interactions and environmental pollution. Southern Resident Killer Whales feed mainly on salmon, and numbers are being reduced due to overfishing and diseases from farmed fish affecting wild salmon stocks.

Boat activity from both commercial and recreational vessels can detrimentally affect these orcas as well. Boats travelling at speed through the whales’ paths have occasionally struck and injured them, sometimes fatally. Noise and disturbance from boats can also alter orca behaviour, reducing their ability to communicate and locate prey.

Increased pollution from industrial and domestic contaminants entering the orcas’ environment has caused a toxic overload in their tissue and body fat. DDT (an insecticide) and PCB’s have been found in such high levels in dead orcas that their bodies have had to be disposed at hazardous waste sites. This lethal contaminant load causes reduced fertility, high mortality and genetic alterations.

Adult orcas breaching. Photo credit: Robert Pittman/NOAA
Adult orcas breaching. Photo credit: Robert Pittman/NOAA

What’s being done to save Southern Resident Killer Whales?

The SRKW’s were designated by the IUCN as Endangered in 2005, and critical habitat was assigned for them in 2006. Despite these protective measures, more habitat is being earmarked for future protection. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has issued a petition to add more critical habitat, which includes Pacific ocean waters along the West Coast of the United States. This area includes crucial foraging and wintering habitat for the SRKW’s.

A recovery plan published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2014 is advocating the following measures to protect these vulnerable whales:

1. Rebuilding depleted salmon and other fish stocks to ensure adequate food is available to aid recovery of SRKW’s.

2. Reducing chemical contamination and pollution in SRKW habitat. Treatment of wastewater in Puget Sound to remove contaminants that will affect the whales.

3. Minimising disturbance of SRKW’s from vessels. In 2011 regulations increased the allowable distance from vessels to the whales in Washington State from 100 to 200 yards.

With increased understanding of their behaviour, co-operation between the United States and Canadian authorities, and additional protective measures, it is hoped that these formidable fish eaters will soon begin making a comeback.

Written by Suzanne Burns; thanks to The Center for Whale Research for population data and photos.

Source: Green Global Travel