Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Anamorphosis of Marine Mammal Rescue

Readers may realise that I occasionally post talks here that would otherwise be lost. Following is a short slightly-edited presentation that I gave to open the workshop on mass strandings at the Society of Marine Mammalogy conference in Dunedin in December.  

The Anamorphosis of Marine Mammal Rescue

Ko nui nga mihi

I some ways I follow my ancestors in that I come to these shore of New Zealand on business that relates primarily to whales.

But unlike those who first came here from Europe to exploit these waters and their steep volcanic slopes:

  • I do not seek the liquid gold found in the bodies of whales;
  • I do not seek crew or shore-workers for my vessels;
  • nor do I want potatoes to address the scurvy in my crew after its long journey here;
  • I don’t even want the cheese and other dairy products that the early settlers here sold to my whaling fore-fathers (although – to be honest - I don’t mind the odd piece of cheese).
Instead, I come to learn and I come to share.

And I start in this way because it is perhaps wise to remember that we see our world in many different ways – ways that vary between cultures and over time.

For example, there were once whalers here. Here is a shore-based whaling station on the Banks Peninsula. The early photograph shows it in dereliction and surrounded by whale bones. The bones were probably all from the southern rights that were whaled-out here in a period of only about 30 years.

Whilst I was in Bank’s Peninsula last week I also met George Mason. One of many whalers who came from far away and then worked on this east coast; he worked first for Captain Hempleman at the famous Peraki Bay whaling station and then moved across the mountainous peninsula to set up house with his Maori wife on the far northern side in beautiful Okanes Bay. George’s view of whales is probably very different to mine.

Now an anamorphic image is one that you can only see clearly if you take the appropriate point of view or look at it through an optical device: a mirror or a lens.

[You can see some examples HERE

 My point is that there are many different ways to view stranding events – many different lenses to look through. Historically, many coastal peoples around the world will have viewed them as a blessing: a source of meat and other useful materials. There is evidence of this in Scotland for example.

There is also evidence that strandings could be terrifying.

Here in 1577: a unual stranding of 13 sperm whales on the Dutch coast shows the locals fleeing for their lives from the monsters. Such events would have been very rare on North Sea coasts.

However, in places where mass strandings regularly occurred, some also learnt how to ‘encourage’ the whales onto the shore in order to gain their meat– again the islands to the North and West of Scotland were examples.

Pilot-whaling like this went on in Scotland (if you look carefully into this stranding image you will see lances being deployed to release the spirits of the whales in the background).  The practise as you know sadly, continues in the adjacent Faroe Islands (now aided by motorised vessels and phone and internet coordination).

(Sea based whaling came later and was probably shared across Europe by the Vikings, but I digress.)

The value of stranded whales was recognised by the British crown as early as 1324
and they became (and remain) Fishes Royal: royal property. Many sovereigns enjoyed whale meat in their day including Henry 8th.

The curious but important legacy of this is a system in the UK where strandings are recorded and many are examined and there is a history of importanta dedicated research associated with the Natural History Museum which eventually became the Queen’s agent in whale-matters which would fill another talk.

World-wide mass strandings are still regarded as mysteries – in my days with WDC I probably took more calls seeking explanations of strandings than any other issue -  and they bring urgent requests for a humane response.

The view that we now take of these events is affected by a lens that typically sees the animals concerned as intelligent, frightened and suffering but still generally fails to understand how their biology makes them vulnerable to coming ashore en masse. Our lens is shaped by our own perceptions of how animals behave which is dominated – entirely reasonably - by our own behaviour. We get that a mother might not leave her calf (something which the old boat-based whalers effectively exploited) but not that a whole social unit would choose to stay together and perish rather than splitting way from the pod or school. We would not behave like that in the same circumstances.

We also now have the added problem that some strandings are natural events; others are not.

But whatever the cause – should we intervene to try to help the animals?

Some say that nature should take its course, but irrespective of whether it is nature or not, we now look through a widely-shared lens of empathy; seeing that a distressed and suffering animal deserves to be helped; indeed it calls on our humanity to be humane. And then all too often (especially in Europe where the majority of strandings feature old and infirm animals) this extends to that most difficult of options – euthanasia. Deciding when an animal should be refloated and when it should be euthanized has become the important focus of rescue work; and associated with this is how to euthanize humanely and how to explain these actions to a watching public.

When we were trying to unite the UK’s strandings workers in the early 1990s, we looked to the example set by Project Jonah here in New Zealand. Indeed we imported sets of rescue pontoons but were only allowed to do so if a trainer came with them and so I went on a WDCS-sponsored journey around the UK with PJs Tania Jones and – as an added bonus Fernando Trujillo from Colombia. He is now one of the world authorities on the Boto and a big university professor these days; but I digress.

Several other times we have turned to New Zealand since then for advice – the most recent being the IWC workshop earlier this year looking at whale euthanasia – because you guys of course have the only SWEB [Sperm Whale Euthanasia Device] and the largest of the toothed whales offers us a mammoth problem when in strands. Others I am sure will speak to this.

The best iteration of the UK’s current rescue policies honed over the last decades can be found in the rescue handbook of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR)

The latest, the seventh edition, published this year includes advice for rescuers and vets including detailed triage, born out of many years of experience. The rescue network in the UK also regularly trains and practices for mass stranding events.

Mass strandings are probably our biggest fear. They are rare but not unknown, including one featuring several dozen pilot whales in the very difficult waters of the Kyle of Durness on the North Scottish mainland in July 2011. But this is a story from someone else to tell.

2013 also saw the first Europe-wide meeting of people involved in rescue at the ECS annual conference in Setubal, Portugal.

Here we soon found that all the various rescue entities across this diverse region were experiencing similar issues. It did not quite turn into a therapy session but it might have. As important to the rescuers as techniques was how to deal with the watching public. I think this is true world-wide.

We agreed a series of principles at the workshop and its report will be published shortly – the top-line conclusions I have given in the abstract.

When the veterinarian Paul Jepson was striving to make decisions concerning the London Whale [the northern bottlenose whale that came up the river Thames]  – millions watched; many of them in real time.

And as I was writing this presentation over the weekend I was informed of a mass stranding of pilot whales in the Everglades National Park in the USA last week. I googled it, read the reports and watched the NBC podcast: and there are the usual comments like ‘veterinarians don’t know why the whales stranded’ and apart from the the fact that the response is led by a US agency (NOAA) which also provides some of the commentators – you can see the same issues in this event – the same questions, the same concerns that play out all around the world in the news reports.

Anamorphosis can have a different meaning. It can relate to evolution. Have we evolved our understanding and policies with respect to strandings?

Certainly they are now better informed by science and much of this science comes from the stranded bodies themselves. For example, we now have a different policy to stranded beaked whales in the UK.

And, in some ways, stranded whales have become the ‘canaries’ of the seas, shedding light on events and impacts not immediately apparent to ours senses, including chemical pollution, marine debris and noise: issues directly affecting them and other marine organisms.

In the last two decades or so - thanks to the efforts of Jepson, Fernandez, DeVille, Law,  Brownlow and others – strandings-related investigations have significantly helped to  show the significance of noise pollution; helped to identify levels of chemical pollution of concern and provides much information more generally about disease.

The latest mystery the strandings work in my part of the world is looking at is the horrific spiral injuries that have been seen in some animals both cetaceans and pinnipeds.

I will not say more [several talks at the conference addressed this issue] except that this latest series of observations, shows again the value of the UK's standings network in identifying issues in our increasingly busy seas.
So, these rather disturbing images conclude my short presentation on the anamorphosis of strandings.

Marine animal rescue is going to continue to challenge us, perplex the public and the media will continue to make news fodder of rescue efforts - whether we like it or not; whilst the rescues themselves will continue often be dangerous and always demanding. 

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