Lindsaye Akhurst will never forget getting the call back in 2013 that an adult male harbour porpoise had stranded near Saanich on Vancouver Island.
As manager of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, presented by Port Metro Vancouver, Akhurst was attending a meeting in Prince Edward Island and wouldn’t return to the rescue centre for another three days. But she didn’t fret. Her team was uniquely situated to give the porpoise, a species of special concern, world-class care.
Ever since the first distressed animal, a fur seal named Nippy, was brought into the Aquarium in 1960, the dedicated staff and volunteers at the Aquarium’s rescue centre have been fine-tuning their skills and building the knowledge necessary to rehabilitate and release a range of wild, west coast creatures. It’s been an adventurous learning curve. Initially, staff dealt primarily with pinnipeds — seals and sea lions — as well as the occasional otter or sea turtle. But that all changed in 2008 with the arrival of Daisy, a distressed neonate harbour porpoise who would become the first cetacean to be rehabilitated on-site at the Rescue Centre.
Initially given just a 10-per-cent chance of survival, Daisy required round-the-clock care as Rescue Centre staff conferred with Aquarium’s marine mammal department to determine the best course of action for the little-known species. Together, the teams worked through trial and error to figure out Daisy’s nutritional requirements, which medication to give her, and how to monitor her vital signs. As she began to gain strength, Rescue Centre staff were able to learn more about the elusive species, which had traditonally been euthanized rather than rehabilitated. The lessons learned from Daisy helped staff develop a cetacean rescue protocol that was successfully employed again in 2011 when Jack, another stranded neonate harbour porpoise, was rehabilitated at the centre.
But the arrival of Levi, the adult porpoise in 2013, was yet another game-changer. “Our goal is always to rescue, rehabilitate and release but when we get the neonates in — the Jacks and the Daisies — we know that there’s possibility that might not happen,” Akhurst says, noting Jack and Daisy were deemed non-releasable by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans due to their young age at the time of rescue. They now reside at the Vancouver Aquarium. “When adults come in you get that glimmer of hope, you fast-forward in your brain: we can release this animal, this is amazing.”
When it came to treating Levi, Rescue Centre staff had to strike a careful balance between administering care and ensuring he didn’t get too accustomed to human contact. “You want to keep wild animals wild,” Akhurst says. They also worked to deepen their understanding of what went wrong in the first place. One important discovery was that Levi may have had a hearing impairment that impacted his ability to echo-locate and could have played a role in his stranding. Using everything they’d learned from Jack and Daisy, staff were able to reverse the effects of stranding on Levi’s muscles and heart. Physically he was doing well, but in order to be released he needed to show he could survive in the wild. Akhurst remembers the day Levi declared he was ready to go home: “When it really clicked in was when he started eating live fish,” she says. “I remember the one day he ate one and we didn’t believe it right away. Then he did it again and I thought, ‘Oh this is amazing, this is a go.’”
A few more fish proved that Levi could be approved for release — the first porpoise to ever be rehabilitated and released in Canadian waters. On Sept. 10, 2013, Akhurst watched as Levi, fitted with a tracking device, slipped back into the Pacific Ocean in the waters off of Vancouver Island. The event not only proved that rehabilitation and release is possible for harbour porpoises, it also yielded valuable data that has helped researchers the world over add to the limited body of knowledge about his species. From Levi, scientists were able to collect 71 days of data, cataloguing everything from Levi’s diving patterns, swimming speeds, and breathing patterns.
In 2014, rescue centre staff again made Canadian history with the successful rehabilitation of Chester, a false killer whale calf who stranded on Chestermans Beach near Tofino. And in 2015, the Aquarium’s porpoise rehabilitation program was honoured with the prestigious Colonel D.G. Dailley Award from Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquarium’s. While it’s nice to be recognized, for Akhurst, and the rest of the Rescue Centre team, there’s no better reward than seeing sick and injured animals returned to health and, whenever possible, to the wild. And as more animals become distressed or injured as a result of human behaviour, Akhurst says her team will continue expanding their ability to ensure animals in their care have the best chance at survival.
“We want to see these animals thrive,” Akhurst says. “It’s a great feeling.”
Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is celebrating 60 years of ocean conservation with a series of stories that highlight its impact on the world around us. Better known for its conservation efforts, such as the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup and Ocean Wise, Vancouver Aquarium also operates Canada’s only Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, and has connected 42 million visitors to aquatic life since opening its doors in 1956. Join us as we explore six decades of milestones and look ahead to what’s needed to protect our world’s oceans.