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In the Surf Trying to Save a Baby Fin Whale

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Conservation | Mammals

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hugh

Four years ago this week, the Aquarium of the Pacific had a little known part in the attempted rescue of a fin whale calf that stranded on a beach in Orange County back in the fall of 2003. This is the story of that rescue attempt as seen from my perspective in the surf with the whale.

On the afternoon of November 20th 2003 future Aquarium vet tech Colleen, and I were attending a marine mammal trainer’s conference being hosted by the Aquarium of the Pacific that week. When news of an unidentified whale coming ashore close by at Sunset Beach reached the conference, Colleen and I were asked to head down to Orange County to assist the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, the primary responders, with the rescue. At that point in time I had already responded to over a dozen cetacean strandings with the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur. In addition, I had also spent many years as a field observer for the Gray Whale Census and Behavioral Research Project at Point Vicente spotting, identifying and recording the marine mammals of the San Pedro Channel so the folks at the National Marine Fisheries Service thought it might be a good idea to have me along to help identify the species of the beached cetacean because I knew my whales and dolphins. I would be responsible for updating the Fisheries Service and Sea World, the other responding organization, over the phone on what type of whale it was. However I was fully expecting this to be a false alarm. We had a few phantom beached whale calls earlier that year. Colleen remembers my initial reaction when we got to the site. “Oh Shoot” I exclaimed as I saw what appeared to be a small rorqual (a type of baleen whale) rolling in the surf. I realized that we were in for a long afternoon. That exclamation signaled the start of four hours in the surf with the whale.

One of my first observations of the animal was that the whale had a white cheek on its right side and a dark cheek on its left, the characteristics of a Fin whale. At six meters long (18 plus feet) this was the longest live beached cetacean I had ever dealt with and yet this was actually a baby whale, possibly close to being a new born. The Fin whale is the second largest whale in the ocean, trailing only the Blue whale in length. An adult Fin whale can reach over 80 feet long. The longest cetacean I had ever worked with previously was a juvenile Stegneger’s beaked whale that I had spent a couple of hours in the water with helping to treat while it was in a portable dolphin stabilization pool in Laguna Beach. This was a pool used to assess and stabilize the condition of a distressed cetacean for a few days before it is sent elsewhere for long term treatment-sort of a marine mammal MASH unit. The other live beached cetaceans I had experience with up to that point were the much smaller Common dolphin, Pygmy Sperm whale, Rissos dolphin, Pacific White-sided dolphins, Bottlenose dolphin and Northern Right Whale dolphin (a dolphin without a dorsal fin, not the whale). On this particular critter I was surprised to see a few individual strands of hair sticking up out of follicles on the whale’s skin. This orphaned calf was so young that it still had remnant hairs on its rostrum. One of the characteristics of a mammal is hair. Cetaceans, being marine mammals, lose their few strands soon after birth. The whale was also so emaciated that you could see the outline of its ribs.

The first thing we did to try to help the calf was to place several sheets and blanket across the bottom of its body with teams of people holding the ends of the material like a stretcher. This allowed us to maneuver the animal around so that we could point its head inland. It wasn’t easy to hold this large creature at this angle but this was the position where we could best keep the animal’s blow-hole clear and prevent it from rolling around as the surf would have less surface area to push against. This would put less trauma on its body. While steadying the animal, we also had to be mindful of the powerful tail of the whale which was quite capable of seriously injuring a person as it flopped around. Our little group of marine mammal rescuers worked very well together as a team. We all seem to know what we had to do and where we needed to be. There were no egos on the beach that afternoon. The only concern was doing what was best for the whale.

The hours that I would spend in the cold, pounding surf with the critter left some lasting memories. Despite being over 18 feet long, I thought that the whale was still kind of a cute baby with its strikingly pink tongue and snow white throat grooves. Coming straight from the trainer’s conference, I only had on my street clothes. Because at times I was waist deep in the surf, they ended up getting totally soaked. Thank goodness I was wearing Dockers that day and not jeans! Jeans would have weighed a ton after being soaked in salt water. After a while the cold water was beginning to chill me to the point where I was actually looking forward to the little rorqual taking a breath. My position was near the front of the whale near the blow-hole. When the animal blew, its warm breath would occasionally blow over my body, giving me a bit of relief from the cold. Fortunately, the baby’s breath didn’t smell fishy like that of an adult baleen whale.

Our little group of first responders (including the local lifeguards and some helpful bystanders) could only perform a holding action with the distressed orphan. We would require a lot more help to do more. Some of that help would come from the Aquarium of the Pacific. Upon hearing of the need for assistance with the cetacean, the Aquarium gathered an ad hoc response team and sent them to our location. After being so very cold and tired from battling the elements while waiting for reinforcement; it was almost like a scene out of an Old West movie with the cavalry arriving just in the nick of time when I recognized husbandry staffers from the Aquarium heading toward us on the beach. These were the same folks that I worked with during my Saturday volunteer shifts at the Aquarium so it was quite an emotional lift to see them coming to our aid. With the extra manpower and the arrival of additional personnel and equipment from the Los Angeles Natural History Museum and Sea World, we were finally able to move the whale out of the surf and start its journey to San Diego for treatment. Also by this time several News helicopters and camera crews started arriving and the extra illumination from their video lights actually helped us after the sun had gone down, to move the whale.

I wish that this story could have had a happier ending but, although the baby whale left the beach alive, it died during transport. However despite the sadness of losing the battle to save the whale’s life, the camaraderie, passion and spirit of selflessness shared by all who participated in the rescue attempt was a priceless and unforgettable experience.

In the Surf Trying to Save a Baby Fin Whale
In this image you can see the Fin whale calf's characteristic white right cheek.  | Hugh Ryono
In the Surf Trying to Save a Baby Fin Whale
Current aquarium vet tech Colleen back in 2003 with the beached Fin whale.  | Hugh Ryono
In the Surf Trying to Save a Baby Fin Whale
The remnant hair folicles of the baby Fin whale.  | Hugh Ryono
In the Surf Trying to Save a Baby Fin Whale
The white throat grooves of the fin whale.  | Hugh Ryono

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Corinne

Saturday, November 24, 2007 09:28 AM

Hugh,
Have you ever heard the story of Minnie, the Fin Whale, that washed up the beach at Long Beach years before the breakwater was ever thought of? Before the Aquarium opened Warren Iliff had a dream about finding the skeleton and displaying it at the Aquarium. Rumor has it that the bones are somewhere in the LA Natural History Museum’s Whale Warehouse. I came across the story when we were researching information about the demise of the Long Beach mudflats and wetlands.

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Hugh

Saturday, November 24, 2007 08:12 PM

Hi Corinne,

I first heard about Minnie back when I was a kid and hung out at the Pike. There was an arcade there that had a picture of the original Minnie the Fin Whale on the beach back in 1897. I think the 63 foot long whale was called Minnie because she was considered Long Beach’s “Municipal” whale as it was a tourist attraction for the city back at the turn of the last century. The tale I heard was that the skeleton was displayed at the end of the Pine Avenue Pier for a while and later moved to another site. I’m not sure where it was first displayed. The skeleton was finally taken off display and stored in the 1950s. I think the bones ended up going to the Los Angeles Natural History Museum in the mid 70s.

BTW: Didn’t someone jokingly name the fake whale skeleton that the aquarium once had up at the back of the aquarium Minnie?

Hugh

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Corinne

Sunday, November 25, 2007 06:31 PM

Do you mean the climbing whale that was in the playground where Shark Lagoon now is? The one that volunteers hated been assigned to to keep kids from as the expression went, “Don’t climb above the blue tape”. Of course, they all tried to. We had much less polite names for the creature than Minnie. Among my happy memories and that of many other volunteers is the day it was removed to make way for Shark Lagoon.

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Hugh

Sunday, November 25, 2007 07:06 PM

That’s the one Corinne. And yes, my wife Pam felt the same way about the whale when she was an Education volunteer at the aquarium. I wonder where those bones went?

Hugh

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