Thursday, March 12, 2009
Ten years ago this summer I received a phone call asking if I could help out with a beaked whale that had stranded on Zuma Beach and was being treated in Orange County. Back then not only did I volunteer at the Aquarium of the Pacific, I was also a trained responder to cetacean strandings at a local marine mammal rehabilitation facility having been involved in responding to over a dozen beachings of whales and dolphins over the years.
The animal that had stranded was a young Stejneger’s beaked whale, a type of deep water whale seldom seen alive and known mainly from carcasses that had washed ashore. I had first encountered this particular whale when it made a quick stop in San Pedro where some triage was done before it was trucked to Laguna Beach for treatment. I was asked if I could help with the midnight shift in the treatment pool by being in the water with the whale.
Knowing that to be with a living breathing Stejneger’s beaked whale is a rare experience, I took notes of my experience with the animal. Some of these observations would later make it into the scientific documentation of this stranding incident. What follows are some of my notes from ten years ago.
Notes from August 1999:
“I lucked out with my whale-walking partner with the beaked whale. Turns out she was also a marine mammal volunteer at the Aquarium of the Pacific so we talked a common language and could both use our Aquarium animal experiences to try to help the whale."
"About an hour into my shift in the water helping to support the whale, I started to laugh. My whale-walking partner asked me what was so funny.
One of our duties while in the water was to monitor the whale’s respirations and help her bring her blowhole up to the surface when she wanted to breathe (The whale being so weak that coming up for air was sometimes difficult for her.). Concentrating so much on monitoring her blowhole, I had forgotten just how long this critter was! One time while holding her head up above the water, she decided to bring her whole body up to the surface. To that point, it felt like I was working with a common dolphin sized critter (An animal I've had previous experience with). So when the full length of her body slowly started coming to the surface, it hit me just how long this whale was and that we were working on only about a third of her length.
I told my whale-walking partner that this critter reminded me of the old animated cartoon where a caveman confronts what he thinks is a small dinosaur in a lake because all he can see is its little head above the water, but as the rest of the body appears, he is stunned to find a huge brontosaurus in front of him. That's why I started laughing. To me, this critter was like that dinosaur and I felt like that caveman."
"Even after spending over two hours in the pool (four hours total) with the whale, I still wasn't positively sure of what type of beaked whale it was. When it first showed up in San Pedro before its transport to Laguna Beach we took an educated guess and put down Stejneger's beaked whale for the species type in the official stranding report figuring that we could always change it later. Being such a very young female beaked whale, it showed very little characteristics by which to identify it with. After Dr. John Heyning (a world renowned beaked whale expert) did a necropsy on the cetacean, it actually did turn out to be a Stejneger's beaked whale."
"The first thing I noticed while in the water with the whale was the three throat grooves under its lower jaw. The throat grooves are unusual traits for a toothed whale. It also had a crescent shaped single blow hole that edged toward its left side."
"The animal was very docile while being helped up to breath by the two handlers who worked two hour shifts in the water with the whale. However, it took seven people to tube feed the animal. While six held the body, three to a side, I held the mouth open to allow the tube to be placed in its throat by two people outside the pool. I got elected to handle the mouth as I had the most hands on time with cetaceans during that shift. While holding the mouth open I could feel a grooved palette in its upper jaw."
"My wife Pam and I thought that it must have been a pretty young animal as it didn't have any rake marks or scars on it body."
"The shadowing around her eyes was a distinctive feature."
" Having the midnight shift on a cool night, it was actually warmer to be in the water with the whale than standing outside the tank. While holding the whale up, I could feel the quivers in its body. One time I thought I felt an echo-location pulse in my knee cap from the whale. It only took one hand to calmly help the whale up to breath. When the whale defecated, it excreted a reddish brown fluid."
"Pam and I also noticed that the whale lacked external parasites (very common on wild cetaceans)."
"The whale seemed most calm when I allowed her to rest the end of her beak in the cup of my hand. Almost like a hand targeting a sea lion at the Aquarium."
"It was unfortunate that the animal was too far gone when it came ashore to save.”
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