LIVE ANIMAL RESPONSE
Live strandings include any incidents in which marine animals, primarily whales, dolphins, porpoises or sharks come ashore. They also include situations where live animals become entrapped in natural or man-made structures. Strandings have been recorded on all coasts across the Maritimes and may occur as a result of navigational error, human interaction, sickness or injuries. Mass strandings occur when two or more animals strand in the same location. Some species, such as long-finned pilot whales, are known to mass strand.
The success of responding to live stranding incidents depends on the condition of the animal, an effective and timely response, and the care provided on-site during the operation.
INITIAL ASSESSMENT AND RESPONSE
Before any intervention is made to assist an animal, it is important to conduct a site assessment. If you have found an live stranded marine animal, this is important information that should be communicated to the MARS hotline ASAP in order to determine an appropriate course of action.
PLEASE NOTE: Be careful around animals at all times. They can move unexpectedly, can carry diseases and bite.
It is important to be aware of your surroundings. Key things to note are:
- Time of day – Do you have enough daylight to work safely?
- Tide – Current state of tidal cycle
- Beach topography – Is there access? Any major hazards to working in the water/ area?
- Sea state – Is it safe to work in the water?
- Weather – Is it safe to work? is it likely to change?
INITIAL ANIMAL ASSESSMENT
After a site assessment is complete, but before approaching or interacting with the animal, it is important to assess the current state and behaviour of the animal. Key things to note:
- The number of animals
- The time that you first sighted the animal(s)
- Where is the animal located (in the water, surf zone or high and dry)?
- Is the animal still alive?
- The species of animal, if you are able to identify it
- A description of the animal (size, colouring, and other physical features; see species profiles)
- A description of the animal’s condition. Is it weak and gaunt? Are there any open wounds?
- Does it have any identification tags or markings?
- Do its eyes follow you?
- Is it making noises?
- Is there anything coming out of any orifices (e.g. blowhole, ears, anus)?
PHOTOGRAPHING THE ANIMAL(S)
The importance of high quality photo and video documentation cannot be overstated! These visual materials aid in the identification of species, confirmation of sex and age, documentation of general health or malnourishment and presence of external injuries or human interaction.
Whenever possible, a full photo sweep of the animal(s) should always be done. A full sweep means taking photographs from different angles while walking around the animal and includes photographs of the following:
- Full length shot of body showing its entire profile
- Animal’s face (i.e. head shot / eyes / mouth)
- Pectoral fins / flippers
- Dorsal fin
- Tail / fluke
- Distinctive markings
- Any signs of human interaction (e.g. rope or marine debris)
WORKING WITH LIVE MARINE ANIMALS
Every year a number of live cetaceans strand on Maritime shores. A number of these incidents involve individual animals; however, mass strandings involving more than one animal also occur. Cetaceans face a number of issues when stranded on a beach including exposure to sun and wind, overheating and suffocation and thus, it is critical that live animals are reported as soon as they are encountered.
Live strandings involving individual animals have been recorded on all coasts. Mass strandings typically have been more localized to “hotspots” in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence along the Northumberland Strait and Western Cape Breton Island, along the southern coast of Cape Breton Island and in the Minas Basin and associated rivers of the Bay of Fundy. These “hotspots” may be related to coastal topography or other localized features.
When interacting with live cetaceans, key things to note:
- Observe the animal from at least 10 feet.
- Minimize stress. Keep the animal calm by keeping all contact, noise and disturbance to a minimum. Stress can be dangerous and lead to worsening conditions.
- Keep other people and pets away.
- DO NOT cover or pour water in the blowhole. Cetaceans breathe air and pouring water in the blowhole could drown the animal.
- DO NOT try to return the animal to the water. Whales and dolphins can carry diseases, bite, and harm people with their tail.
- DO NOT attempt to push or drag the animal back into the water by pulling on it’s tail, flippers or dorsal fin. There are no bones in the dorsal fin or tail and they can be severed if pulled on or if a rope is wrapped around. Pulling on the tail stock can lead to irreversible damage to it’s tail and spine. The flippers have very shallow sockets and can be easily dislocated.
- Avoid inhaling a cetacean’s expired breath as they can carry diseases humans can contract. Avoid eating or drinking around the animal.
While seals spend most of their lives in or around water, they often haul out of the water onto land for a variety of reasons: to rest, give birth, and molt. Seals can stay out of the water for extended periods from several days to a week. It is important to remember that not all seals which are found ashore are in distress.
Seals appear very awkward on land. They inch along on their bellies, as their flippers cannot support their bodies and thus are not able to use them to walk. An animal may favour a flipper if there is a small cut or abrasion present. Seals also use shivering as a means to warm their body. This is a normal process; however, shivering can also be a stress response if people or pets are too close. Seals may also hiss or bark if approached. This too is normal.
Mothers will haul out to give birth on ice and land, so unweaned pups are frequently observed and reported. Depending on the species, mothers feed their pups over various time periods (e.g. 4 days to 6 weeks). During this time, they may leave their pups unattended in order to feed themselves; however, mother will return often to feed their pup. Once weaned, mothers abandon the pup. As pups are not strong swimmers, they may remain on-land for an extended period of time before returning to the sea. Driving young seal pups back to the water may actually be interrupting a resting phase. Young seals are not necessarily wary of humans and may haul out on well-used beaches or other areas such as wharves.
Unweaned pups may be found separated from their mothers, particularly after storms. Pups get washed off beaches, or become separated from their mothers in the water, sometimes ending up on more accessible beaches, where they are found by members of the public. Occasionally, the mother may find the pup again, but often they become permanently separated, particularly when the pups are picked up and moved around by well meaning but misguided people.
When interacting with live seals, key things to note:
- Keep your distance! Seals are wild animals. Observe the animal from at least 10 feet.
- Keep other people and pets away.
- They can bite if frightened or provoked and may carry diseases that can be transferred to people or other animals (e.g. pets). If they look at you when approached and/or bark or hiss, that is usually a good sign.
- DO NOT attempt to move seals. They are often on the beach for a reason. This is particularly important for pups as the mom may not be able to find them when they return. Only healthy animals which are in imminent danger may be moved.
- Seals DO NOT need to be wet constantly. DO NOT pour water on seals. This will be stressful and may drive an animal in need of rest back into the water before it is ready.
- DO NOT put pups back in the water. Unweaned pups are not strong swimmers.
- DO NOT feed seals. They are wild animals and may bite if approached. Seals may also become dependant on humans for food.
- DO NOT cover a seal with anything. Seals must be able to control their body temperature and blankets or towels can actually can be detrimental.
- Pinnipeds can carry diseases which can be transmitted to humans. Avoid animals which look ill. Avoid inhaling a pinniped’s expired breath as they can carry diseases humans can contract. Avoid eating or drinking around the animal.
Sharks are cartilaginous fish – skeleton made of cartilage, not bone. A shark’s skin is made up of dermal denticles (tiny tooth-like scales) that cover the animal, making its skin feel rough to the touch. Sharks have five rigid fins which they can’t fold down against their bodies.
Most species of sharks have five pairs of gill slits on each side of their head, which are crucial for their breathing system. By opening their mouth, water is drawn into the shark. When it closes its mouth, the water is forced over its gills and the tiny blood vessels in shark gills absorb oxygen from the water. In order to aid in passing water over their gills most sharks must swim forward all the time. If sharks strand, become entrapped or forced to stop swimming, they can suffocate. Action must be taken as quickly as possible after the discovery of a shark to increase the chances of survival.
Sharks are very fragile animals when taken out of the water. Extreme care must be taken when interacting with them out of the water to minimize harm and stress to the animal and ensure your own safety.
When interacting with live sharks, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Sharks are very flexible and can cause harm from thrashing their tail and in some cases can bite their own tail. Extreme care should be taken around the head and tail of a shark!
- Do not touch, hold or pull the shark by its gills. This may cause serious injury or lead to death.
- Sharks skin is made up of miniature teeth (i.e. dermal denticles) which gives it a rough texture like sandpaper.
- Out of the water shark organs are very sensitive and can easily be injured. Extreme care must be taken when touching and/or lifting them to minimize harm and stress to the shark.
- In cases were a shark has been out of water for an extended period (e.g. 5+ minutes), but the animal is still alive, the shark may have to be revived to ensure it survives. This should ONLY be done by a MARS Response Team Member.
LIVE SEA TURTLES
Sea turtles are reptiles and, like cetaceans and pinnipeds, they are air-breathing. Sea turtles are different from freshwater turtles and tortoises because instead of legs, they have flippers to help them move more efficiently through the water. Sea turtles also differ from other turtles as they cannot withdraw their head or limbs into the shell. Instead their shell is designed to be hydrodynamic, as many may never leave the ocean unless they are ill or nesting; however, sea turtles do not nest in the Maritime provinces.
As reptiles are cold-blooded, the temperature of their body is greatly affected by the temperature of the air or water around them. In cold water they do not have the ability to warm themselves, and must instead migrate to warmer waters. Cold-stunning is a hypothermic reaction that occurs when sea turtles are exposed to prolonged cold water temperatures. Extremities, eyes and/or neck may be stiff or partially frozen. These occurances typically happen during the summer and early fall.
When interacting with live sea turtles, here are some things to keep in mind:
- For your safety, stay away from the turtle’s head. Sea turtles, especially loggerheads, have very strong jaws and can harm you if provoked.
- If possible, keep the turtle in a shady and place out-of-the-way of people and other animals.
- Keep the sea turtle damp or moist by placing a water-soaked towel over the head, shell and flippers. This is the most effective method to keep the turtle moist.
- Under no circumstance place in a container holding water.
- Do not attempt to return the sea turtle to the water unless instructed to by the Canadian Sea Turtle Network or a MARS response coordinator.