Rescue at sea: Helping hands come to aid of baby whale

By Lois Ann Dort    
June 3 2020

TOR BAY -- “A lady was exiting Tor Bay Branch Road and she flagged us down to use a cell phone,” Gourley Webber said of the incident that started a maritime adventure for he and his family last Friday, May 29 as they were driving near their cottage in the small community of Tor Bay in Guysborough County.

The lady in question had seen what she described as a porpoise stranded on the nearby beach. Having no cellphone herself, she decided to seek aid for the animal, stopping the first motorist she saw.

Webber, his wife and daughter – all travelling in the truck—thought it would be best to check on the animal as quickly as possible and headed down to the beach. “I ran down across the beach, Webber told The Journal on Monday. “I saw that it was struggling. At first, I gave it a quick look over. I turned it over a bit to make sure it didn’t have an injury from a boat or anything like that. There was no blood and it didn’t look hurt.

“Eventually I wrestled with the tail to get it turned towards the water and gave it a little bit of time to recuperate before I let it go. First it stopped a few times, almost like catching its breath after struggling for so long. Then it got out past where I assume the rip current was located. We continued to watch it go out to sea.”

The following day Webber returned to the beach “and there was no sign of anything around anymore. I was quite happy seeing that,” he said.

In instances where a marine mammal is found dead or distressed, the organization to call for help and support is the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS). The society works with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and other organizations throughout the maritime provinces and along with offering assistance, the society gathers data on such events.

Andrew Reid, response coordinator for MARS, spoke to The Journal on Monday about the stranding incident and their role as a society in such cases. “We’re always happy to receive calls regarding dead or distressed marine mammals. With live strandings it is not always clear what the best course is without a proper assessment.

“When whales, porpoises and dolphins strand on beaches – it can be for a number of reasons—one of them is that they are sick or gravely injured. Some of them can be coming to shore to die—those are animals that shouldn’t necessarily be refloated. They might be carrying disease; we don’t want to release them back into that population…With all stranded animals we always appreciate the call so we can get on the scene,” said Reid.

Although the society has a wide area to cover, they have volunteers across the Maritimes and try to have someone on the scene of a live stranding as quickly as possible. While it may take longer to get a MARS responder to a remote site, that shouldn’t dissuade people from seeking the society’s help. Reid said, “If they call right away, we can provide some advice on how to keep that animal stabilized and comfortable until someone can get there. Dolphins and porpoises can live out of the water for quite a while as long as they are cared for.”

In this particular case of a grounded animal in Tor Bay, it could have taken several hours for someone to respond to the call. However, a stabilized porpoise or dolphin, with continuous care, can survive for a full 12 hours or more, said Reid, depending on its size. “The time decreases with the size of the animal because their body isn’t designed to support the weight when they are out of the water.”

Technology helps MARS assess situations faster than was possible in the days before smartphones, said Reid. “If people call it in right away and they can get photographs of the animal and provide us with the size; then we can provide a quick assessment of the animal’s health. We can see signs of malnourishment that aren’t always immediately obvious to the public. Photographs sent quickly by text really help in these situations.”

On Friday, from the moment the family spotted the animal, Webber’s daughter Sarah filmed their interaction with it and the rescue her father-- who serves as Fleet Oceanography Petty Officer at the Department of National Defence--enacted. When Reid saw the footage on Monday, he identified the animal as a newborn pilot whale due, in part, to the series of lighter perpendicular lines on the body that are called fetal folds.

When Webber was informed that the animal was a baby pilot whale and not a porpoise he said, “Wow, I didn’t expect that…It looked so much like a Harbour Porpoise. I did notice the blow hole on the top was quite large. I thought that was kind of funny.”

Webber had searched online after the incident in an effort to identify the animal they had encountered. “I looked at silhouettes and a Harbour Porpoise has a very similar dorsal fin,” he said then chuckled, “I have never saved a whale before.”

If you see a dead, stranded or distressed marine mammal contact the Marine Animal Response Society at their toll-free telephone number 1-866-567-6277 or email mars@marineanimals.ca . They can also be contacted on VHF Channel 16.