We have been involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals since 1960. Over the decades we have rescued, rehabilitated and successfully released thousands of animals, including harbour seals, California sea lions, Steller sea lions, Northern fur seals, elephant seals, sea turtles, killer whales and harbour porpoise. Below are a few or our rescue stories.
Levi, an adult male harbour porpoise, was found stranded on the shoreline of Saanich Inlet on March 26, 2013, and brought to the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, as part of a collaborative rescue effort with Cetus Research and Conservation Society and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). Too weak to swim on his own, Levi was placed in a specially-designed flotation sling and hand-fed nutrients while staff kept a watchful eye on the ailing animal.
After a series of diagnostic tests, the veterinary team at the Rescue Centre determined that, in addition to severe health problems caused by stranding, Levi had a heavy load of lung parasite and was suspected to have hearing loss. Over the following months, the veterinary team treated Levi’s lung infection and parasitic load, and worked intensely with him to regain his strength through physiotherapy. Although his progress was slow, he eventually began eating herring on his own and continued to gain strength. By late summer, Levi had begun to display marked improvements. He was swimming on his own, foraging for live fish, and tests showed that his hearing issues had resolved with time.
Levi and his veterinary team had defied the odds ‒ by early September, his health had improved dramatically and he was deemed releasable by DFO. On September 10, 2013, the veterinary team outfitted Levi with a SPLASH tag, a satellite-linked transmitter, which enabled the Rescue Centre team to closely monitor his progress. The tag provided data to track Levi’s travel, monitor his dive depths and measure how long he is able to dive ‒ data that helped to ensure he successfully transitioned back to life in the wild. After the tag was attached, Levi was transported by boat to Saanich Inlet, where veterinary staff released him back to his natural habitat, under the direction of Dr. Haulena and with support from DFO.
Springer (A73) is a female member of the A4 pod of British Columbia’s northern resident community of killer whales. In 2001, when she was just two, her mother died, leaving her an orphan. Early the next year she was spotted alone near Seattle, hundreds of kilometres from the Northern B.C. region her pod calls home. Her rescue would require the expertise of those who worked regularly with marine mammals.
We put together a team consisting of marine mammal researcher Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, veterinarian Dr. Dave Huff and the then Vancouver Aquarium General Manager Clint Wright. Together with U.S. researcher Brad Hanson, we travelled to Washington to find Springer. We found her emaciated, suffering from skin lesions and exhibiting signs of starvation. The next day, we submitted our rescue plan to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. The plan was carefully discussed by an independent scientific panel which decided that there was a chance she could be reunited with her known family.
Television and news outlets worldwide covered Springer’s capture and transfer to a net pen near Seattle on June 13, 2002. Once there, the team was able to treat her skin and health conditions. The American and Canadian governments, after considerable discussion, agreed on a disease screening protocol that would allow her to cross the international border and return to Canadian waters. Just one month after her rescue, Springer was well enough to be transported by boat back to B.C.’s Dong Chong Bay, near Johnson Strait.
Our team, led by Clint Wright, oversaw the operation to bring Springer home. We had several marine mammal care specialists and veterinarians on hand to ensure she received the best possible care. Thankfully, the journey was uneventful. Spring spent her first and only night in a net pen in Dong Chong Bay. The next day, approval was given for her release to members of her pod, as they passed by the bay.
This was the first time that such a reintroduction had been attempted and we were relieved to see that she was slowly accepted back into the group. She was sighted regularly over the next few years, and appeared to be in excellent health.
On July 4, 2013, a research technician from the Cetacean Research Program sighted now 13-year-old Springer with her first calf! The sighting was cause for celebration. It affirmed the current good health and resilience of Springer 11 years after her heroic rescue, and also demonstrated the power of experienced people working together for a good cause.
On August 23, 2011, Dr. Martin Haulena, and the Marine Mammal Rescue team were rushed to Vancouver Island to assist a California sea lion in distress. Rescued off the shore of Ucluelet, the young adult male was spotted by locals with a foot-long fishing flasher hanging from his left cheek.
“When we arrived on site, we immediately knew he wasn’t in good shape. The fishing hook was embedded quite deep in the gastrointestinal tract and we noticed his poor condition; he was emaciated, dehydrated, very weak and suffering from a deep wound on his back. He was swimming with difficulty,” explains Dr. Haulena.
Thanks to the help of Fisheries and Ocean Canada, the 200-kilogram sea lion was brought to the shore and then transferred by ferry to the Rescue Centre. After a series of diagnostic testing, a hook was located in his esophagus at the level of the heart and was successfully removed. While healing and recovering at the Rescue Centre, he gained more than 50 kilos and ate 15 kilos of fish daily.
After five weeks of veterinary treatment and animal care at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, Flash was returned home on October 5, 2011.
Comber, a rescued green sea turtle, was found on a beach near Tofino on a cold January day in 2016, far from its home range in the warm waters off Hawaii or Mexico. Hypothermic and barely responsive the Comber was transferred to our care for treatment. It’s likely this tropical turtle followed a warm current northward and became distressed when its body temperature began to drop in B.C.’s colder waters.
“Reptiles are cold-blooded and they completely depend on their external environment to control their body temperature,” said Dr. Martin Haulena, “When they get into water that’s too cold they get hypothermia, also known as cold-stunning. Everything slows down: heart, respiration rates, they can’t swim, they can’t forage — they get weaker and weaker.”
After months of recovery and rehabilitation Comber was given a clean bill of health and transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and released back into warmer waters where the turtle came from.
Green sea turtles are designated as Endangered worldwide by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List. They are not listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act because Canada is outside their range.
Way back in 1960, a small northern fur seal was brought to the Vancouver Aquarium after a fisher had caught him by mistake with his fishing rod while salmon fishing.
Our dedicated animal care staff nursed Nippy back to health. This tiny seal was our first rescue patient, the first of many.
We now rescue and rehabilitate over 150 marine mammals each year for release back into the wild.