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When Daisy, the rescued harbour porpoise arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre in 2008, nobody knew what the future held in store. With a poor prognosis and little knowledge of this elusive species, staff worked tirelessly to keep Daisy alive while learning as much as they could about her kind. Now, years later, Daisy is not only a healthy and beloved fixture at the Vancouver Aquarium—along with fellow rescued porpoise, Jack—the lessons learned from her care have garnered a national award.
Earlier this month, the Aquarium was presented with the Colonel D.G. Dailley Award from Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) for its porpoise rescue and rehabilitation program. According to CAZA, the award recognizes achievement in propagation and management programs within animal collections at member organizations.
The only one of its kind in Canada, the Aquarium’s program is changing how the scientific community approaches porpoises, and other cetaceans, in distress. Shy and elusive, little is known about harbour porpoises, which are listed as a species of special concern in Canada. In the past, that lack of knowledge led many to believe that rescue attempts are too resource-intensive to attempt and the chance of survival, particularly among neonates, too small. As a result, euthanasia has been a commonly accepted alternative to rescue.
The Aquarium’s now award-winning program has proved these creatures can be given a second chance at life. Beginning with Daisy, Aquarium staff have worked over the years to develope a successful rescue protocol for porpoises and other cetacean species.
However, it’s been a steep learning curve. Initially given a less than 10-per-cent chance of survival, Daisy arrived at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre at about six weeks of age severely dehydrated and malnourished. She required round the clock care as staff—more accustomed to working with seals, otters and the occasional turtle—worked feverishly to determine how best to care for her. Fortunately, they didn’t have to do it alone. Rescue centre staff drew on the expertise of the Aquarium’s marine mammal department, who cared for Pacific white sided dolphins and beluga whales daily. Using what is known about those cetaceans, the teams worked together to identify normal breathing and behavior patterns, as well as find the right nutrition, medications and water temperature for Daisy.
Her rescue also led to a new invention that has become a crucial tool in marine mammal rehabilitation. Too weak to swim, Daisy had to be supported in the water by staff and volunteers for her first five days at the rescue centre. This was exhausting work for the rescue team, who rotated shifts in the water. Then a volunteer found a solution by fashioning a floatation sling out of pvc piping and old life jackets. The prototype freed up resources and has since been refined for use in every cetacean rescue by the Aquarium team since.
Thanks to the lessons learned in Daisy’s rescue, Jack, another neonate porpoise rescued in 2011, had a dramatically reduced recovery time. Staff now knew what medications to have on hand, which nutrition to provide and how to help him gain muscle strength. In 2013, the program reached another major milestone with the successful rescue of Levi, an adult porpoise, who became the first in Canada to be released back into the wild. Fitted with a SPLASH transmitter before his release, Levi provided valuable knowledge about the habits and behaviours of porpoises in the wild. And in 2014, the rescue program had another first when staff applied all they had learned to the rescue of Chester, a stranded false killer whale calf found on Chesterman Beach near Tofino.
Today, Daisy, Jack and Chester reside at the Aquarium, where they continue to contribute valuable knowledge to the rescue program. They provide critical insight that is leading to a brighter future for their kind. And that’s the ultimate prize.