Thursday, July 24, 2014

Angel In The Morning

Sand angels - photo by Junie Quiroga

The other morning as I passed the lifeguard chair in English Bay I noticed the Life Saving Society of BC & Yukon were engaged in a little publicity effort to highlight the need for folks to learn how to swim.  It's something they do every year as part of National Drowning Prevention Week.  To highlight this year's message 75 sand angels were being laid to rest on the beach, one for each person who drowned in B.C. waters last year.

Angels of the Water - photo by Junie Quiroga 

The Life Saving Society is the organization that has been training and certifying lifeguards for all public pools and beaches since 1911 (I got my National Lifeguard Service back in 1985) and they also offer a number of lifesaving and first aid courses.  But they wouldn't even need to exist if people just took swimming lessons, something the Red Cross has been offering for more than 60 years and who were the folks who taught me to swim and certify me as an instructor. There was no need for 75 people to drown in B.C. last year, it was all so preventable.

Learn To Swim 2011 "tombstones"

Every year they have a National Drowning Prevention Week that falls in the middle of summer when most people are near the water in either the ocean or a lake. In 2011 they put up 67 tombstones on the beach in English Bay to illustrate the number of people who drowned the previous year but unfortunately the trend is not improving. Many of these drownings were a result of boating accidents, again something that could easily have be prevented if the non-swimmers had simply worn a life-jacket.

Vancouver's first lifeguard Joe Fortes
With our proximity to the ocean it's no surprise that "learn to swim" programs have been around since Vancouver came into existence.  Having a lifeguard around is always nice but it's not really something you can always count on, especially if you go out early like I do. "An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure" the old saying goes, and if people would just take the time to learn to swim they would not only make their life safer but also a lot more enjoyable as it is such a pleasant form of exercise. No need to meet the angels in the morning any sooner than necessary.

Click on the link below to check out my earlier blog post "Swim Don't Walk" for more information.

Empty lifeguard chair & slide - photo by Junie Quiroga

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Rescue Me

As someone who spends part of every day swimming 2.5 km in the ocean (occasionally accompanied by seals) not to mention scuba diving and boating on most weekends, I have a tremendous interest in all things aquatic, particularly for those creatures who make it their home and I have the privilege to encounter. While I'm always fascinated with the colourful invertebrates and fish of the Pacific Northwest, there's nothing more stirring than being close to a marine mammal.  Warm blooded like ourselves, but still living in the ocean, their intelligence, grace in the water, and the way they interact with humans, seems to generate a special bond between us all.

Unlike cats & dogs and other domesticated animals who can count on the local branch of the SPCA to come to their rescue when they get in harm's way, or the Wildlife Rescue Association for wild animals and birds, there's only one rescue facility for the entire B.C. coastline to care for any injured seal, sea lion, dolphin, whale, or other marine animal, such as sea turtles, that may be in distress, and that's the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.  Founded in the late 1960's when a northern fur seal named Nippy, was brought to the attention of the Vancouver Aquarium after it was found tangled up in some fishing gear in Campbell River, and then later when an abandoned baby seal named Buster was brought to the back door, the Aquarium realized there was a need for a marine mammal rescue centre that could look after these delightful creatures.

As part of the Aquarium, the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre now rescues and rehabilitates an average of 100 sea animals a year with the vast majority of them being harbour seals but, over the years, they've also been involved in the rescue of humpback whales, elephant seals, sea otters, green sea turtles, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, and killer whales. Some, like the humpback whale that came ashore in White Rock in 2012, were too badly injured to survive but, others have been great success stories like; Flash Gordon, the Stellar sea lion, who had fishing gear removed from his esophagus, Levi, the harbour porpoise, with a massive lung infection that became the first harbour porpoise ever to be released in Canada and, Springer, the orphaned killer whale, who was re-united with her pod and was recently spotted with her own newborn calf.

Humpback in White Rock

Flash Gordon being released
Levi being released

Springer in the wild

The "Med" Shed
Rehabilitation is the primary goal of the rescue centre, and one of the things that makes the program so rewarding is the incredibly high success rate they have with harbour seals. Showing up dehydrated, malnourished, and suffering from maternal separation, they are quickly given a full medical, cleaned up, and then put on a nutritious milk replacement diet with a 52% fat content made up of liquid fish oil and other ingredients to get them up to their optimum weight. Within a month or so they are eating whole fish and have learned how to hunt and catch live fish for themselves.  After taking an exam with the Department of Fisheries & Oceans, who makes the final decision to release them, they are given their release papers and off they go.

Titanium with his umbilical cord still attached

Seal being released
Harbour seal pups have a natural advantage over other sea mammals in that within a month or so of being born they quickly become accustomed to surviving in their natural environment. Dolphins and porpoises on the other hand take 6 months to a year to learn the necessary survival skills, and whales take even longer, up to a year or two. This of course makes it much easier to release harbour seals once they are in good health, whereas other young sea mammals face a very uncertain chance of survival if they have no parental instruction. In the case of Jack, the harbour porpoise who was only 5 weeks old when he was rescued, and Daisy another harbour porpoise youngster, the Department of Fisheries & Oceans determined they were non-releasable and so they are now living in the Aquarium as permanent guests, the only two harbour seals in captivity in North America.

Jack in rehab

Jack and Daisy
There are those who think the Rescue Centre is a front for supplying the Aquarium itself with animals to put on display but that's simply not the case. The mission of the Rescue Centre is to rehabilitate the injured creatures and then release them back in the wild. Only in extreme cases is an animal kept at the Aquarium and they, in turn, become a valuable tool for researchers who are always trying to better understand them. 

For example Tag, the beloved Stellar sea lion who lived in the Aquarium for 15 years after being rescued at the age of 2 weeks, participated in many studies over his lifetime so researchers could try and explore some of the theories that have been proposed to explain the decline of the Stellar sea lion population.  He also provided Dr. Martin Haulena with the opportunity to learn how to administer the right amount of anasthetic when treating sea lions. This in turn has led to ground breaking on-site rescue techniques that allow for the removal of fishing lines and other entanglements on sea lions by being able to administer the right amount of drug to the animal while it is hauled out on log booms or rocks and not have it drown.

Dr. Haulena and Vancouver Aquarium rescue team with an injured sea lion in Barkley Sound
Treating another injured sea lion in Fanny Bay

Each year there is a new naming convention for the seals brought into the Rescue Centre, one year it was types of candy, another celestial objects, and for 2014 it's the table of the elements. Giving each one a name helps personalize things and illustrate that every animal is unique and deserving of our love and attention. As heart-breaking as some of the rescue stories are it's even more heart-warming to witness the success stories the Rescue Centre can point to. On their website they have an amazing blog filled with videos and photos documenting their ongoing efforts.

Clean up
The Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is a unique institution in the Pacific Northwest, with no comparable facilities in either Washington State or Alaska. While a certain percentage of the work done at the Rescue Centre is done by dedicated staff and veterinarians, there is a huge volunteer component of donated time that keeps the facility going.  Every day the animals have to be closely monitored, cleaned, exercised and of course fed. The Rescue Centre is a very expensive operation to maintain and it's in constant need of donations and support. Fortunately there are a number of organizations who recognize the contribution being made, and a special thanks goes out to Harbour Air and Pacific Coastal for providing free transport service whenever they are called upon to assist.

Preparing dinner
Injured Wally
While the Rescue Centre generates considerable publicity for its efforts, none has captured the hearts of so many as the recent rescue of Wally the sea otter.  Picked up off the beach in Tofino after suffering from shotgun wounds that had left him blinded, as well as shattering the bones in one of his flippers which had to be partially amputated, and leaving him with numerous broken teeth that also had to be removed in addition to enduring a root canal, Wally has since made a remarkable recovery and is now safe and being lovingly cared for in his permanent home at the Aquarium.

Wally at peace
Obviously non-releasable, Wally now serves as an ambassador for a species that was once hunted to extinction. Wally is another example of how one rescued animal can help us develop a better understanding of our environment and the interconnectedness of all things.  Sea otters are now recognized as a critical component in maintaining the health of our kelp forest ecosystems because they eat the voracious sea urchins that would otherwise destroy this natural sanctuary for all sorts of fish, invertebrates, and other marine creatures that depend on it for their survival. Traumatized, sometimes scarred for life, but nonetheless grateful, I'm sure, for the help they receive, you can't help but feel good inside for being part of an organization devoted to assisting our fellow aquatic citizens when they say, "Rescue Me."

For more information and to donate, please check out the following link;

Manager Lindsaye Akhurst in front of the big tank