Late last night, Hana, one of two Pacific white-sided dolphins at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, received unprecedented surgical treatment for an often fatal gastric condition. A team of the world’s best veterinarians, including a leading surgeon, anesthetist and radiologist, were flown in for an emergency procedure never before conducted on a cetacean.
Earlier this week, the animal care team working with Hana documented a change in her behaviour. Vancouver Aquarium head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena conducted preliminary testing and, although the 21-year-old dolphin looked energetic, he suspected gastrointestinal distension and inflammation, a rapid and life-threatening condition that occurs in animals everywhere, both in professional care and in wild populations.
Having flown in one of the world’s top dolphin radiologists to confirm the diagnosis, Dr. Haulena knew surgery had to be considered — without it, Hana wouldn’t survive. Because dolphins live in water and are conscious breathers (each breath is a conscious decision), surgical procedures are high-risk and extremely rare.
Overnight, Dr. Haulena assembled an exemplary team of best-in-field veterinarians specializing in surgical care, anesthesia and radiology to give Hana her very best chance at survival. The team included:
- Marina Ivancic, a board-certified veterinary radiologist based in San Diego. She is the first veterinary radiologist to concentrate on aquatic animal imaging, conducting diagnostic imaging research with the Navy Marine Mammal Foundation and providing international consultation services in aquatic animal radiology.
- James Bailey, a marine mammal veterinarian specializing in anesthesia, based in Gainesville, Florida. As an expert in anesthetic drug options for cetaceans, Dr. Bailey’s skills and knowledge were crucial in keeping Hana under anesthesia for the procedure.
- Dean Hendrickson, professor of surgery from the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University. Dr. Hendrickson’s practice and research specialties include minimally invasive surgery and wound care; he’s previously worked with mega-vertebrates including black and white rhinos, elephants, and hippopotami, and with marine mammals, including dolphins.
On Thursday evening, with Hana’s condition rapidly deteriorating, the team decided to attempt surgery as it was recognized as her only option. “This procedure was the first of its kind, carried out by an extraordinary veterinary team assembled and led by head veterinarian Dr. Haulena,” said Clint Wright, senior vice president and general manager of Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. “Without his professional experience, knowledge and history of collaboration, Hana would not have had this chance. We’re very fortunate.”
This is the first time general anesthesia has been performed in a Pacific white-sided dolphin and the first-ever enterotomy (surgery on the bowel) to treat a cetacean. After several hours of surgery, Hana is recovering and is now in the medical pool under around-the-clock care with a robust team of animal care staff.
“Only a few years ago, such a procedure on a whale or dolphin would not have been possible,” said Dr. Haulena. “With advances in marine mammal medicine mean it’s now a slim but possible option, and we had help from the very best in the field of veterinary medicine. What the team was able to achieve last night was a breakthrough in veterinary care as Hana’s surgical procedure has never before been successfully completed. Her prognosis is still critical, but we’re hopeful.”
The next 24 to 48 hours will be critical and Dr. Haulena and the animal care team will be with Hana around-the-clock as she recovers. Our sincere thanks are shared with the professional veterinary team who immediately came to assist as well as our larger veterinary and animal care team for their dedication to providing Hana with the best possible care.
Hana has been at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre since 2005. She arrived from Enoshima Aquarium where she had been in care for injuries sustained from entanglement in a fixed-location fishing net off the east coast of Japan in 2003. As the only marine mammal rescue centre in Canada, Vancouver Aquarium provides long-term care to several rescued marine mammals; it offered a home to her and to Helen, another rescued Pacific white-sided dolphin, after Japanese officials deemed them unreleasable due to the extent of their injuries, which would have put them at a disadvantage in the wild. Helen, 27, is in good health in the main habitat of the Wild Coast exhibit.
Learn more about the rescue and care performed by our veterinary team at our Marine Mammal Rescue Centre which rescues and rehabilitates over 100 marine mammals each year. As a self-sustaining, not-for-profit, donations to the Rescue Centre help fund critical care and rescues.