A dolphin that inspired and educated more than 10 million visitors, students and scientists at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre passed away Sunday evening. Hana, an adult, female Pacific white-sided dolphin succumbed after a week-long fight with gastrointestinal distension and inflammation, despite first-of-its kind surgery performed Thursday night by a world-class team of veterinarians flown in from across the continent.
“Hana has been a huge part of our life at the Vancouver Aquarium and will be greatly missed by our team as well as visitors who came to love and learn from her,” said Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. “I can tell you that we did absolutely everything we could to save her, including bringing in the best radiologist, anesthetist and surgeon in the field to provide treatment, and we had an incredible team of animal husbandry staff with her in waist-deep water around-the-clock.”
Last Monday, May 18, the animal care team who work with Hana every day documented a change in her behaviour. With assistance from one of the world’s top dolphin radiologists, Dr. Haulena confirmed gastrointestinal distension and inflammation, a rapid and life-threatening condition that occurs in animals everywhere, both in professional care and in wild populations. With her condition worsening, he assembled an exemplary team of best-in-field veterinarians specializing in surgical care, anesthesia and radiology; together, the team decided to perform the first-ever enterotomy (bowel surgery) on a Pacific white-sided dolphin under general anesthesia. Because cetaceans live in water and are conscious breathers, surgical procedures are high-risk and extremely rare.
“The surgery had never been successfully completed before,” said Dr. Haulena. “When she survived it, we had a glimmer of hope that aggressive post-operative treatment and her own strength might just pull her through.” Since the late-night surgery took place Thursday, the marine mammal care team and other volunteers nursed her around the clock, walking with her in waist deep water, supporting her, providing familiar encouraging words and close gentle contact. Although there were signs of improvement on Saturday morning, on Sunday, some of her physiological parameters started to worsen. She passed away peacefully Sunday evening surrounded by a team that had been caring for her daily over the course of ten years.
“Although we knew it was a miracle that she made it through the surgery and that her recovery was a long shot, her loss still comes as a devastating blow,” said Clint Wright, senior vice president and general manager of Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.
Hana was a dolphin already given a second chance. She arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre in 2005 from Enoshima Aquarium where she’d 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.
Since their rescue and rehabilitation more than 10 years ago, the dolphins have contributed to several research projects by Vancouver Aquarium and collaborating scientists from around the world, including one to help understand how Pacific white-sided dolphins navigate underwater using sound (echolocation), and why they get caught in fishing nets. More recently, they contributed to a study of lung-function that may soon help inform marine mammal rescue efforts, particularly during a mass stranding of cetaceans, which require quick decisions to save sick and injured animals. Most poignantly, perhaps, Hana’s legacy will be the important medical advances and understanding that were made during her surgery, which will help to save future cetaceans.
Just as important, Hana inspired millions. School classes, Aquarium members and visitors from around the world learned about Pacific white-sided dolphins, the plight of entangled marine mammals and the broad range of issues affecting animals living in our oceans. She will be missed by all.
The other Pacific white-sided dolphin, Helen, is in good health and, under the guidance of Dr. Haulena, the veterinary and animal husbandry teams will closely monitor her over the coming weeks to ensure she adjusts to the change in the Wild Coast habitat.
The Vancouver Aquarium is a self-sustaining, not-for-profit marine science centre that offers a long-term home to rescued, non-releasable marine mammals. Our Marine Mammal Rescue Centre rescues and rehabilitates over 100 marine mammals each year. Donations to the Rescue Centre help to fund critical care and ongoing rehabilitation.