A handful of fishery officers, City of White Rock staff and RCMP had a whale of a dilemma on the city’s West Beach Monday afternoon.
They had to put to the test training aimed at increasing the survival rate of whales that live-strand along B.C.’s shoreline.
“We’ve had, over the years, lots of live strandings in White Rock and Boundary Bay, and this is just training to be ready if we have more,” Paul Cottrell, marine mammal co-ordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told Peace Arch News.
“When it actually happens, it’s really complicated.”
Following a morning of in-class training, Cottrell, a South Surrey resident, challenged the team to refloat a 12-foot inflatable, using a system of pontoons and a sling.
“It looks real,” Cottrell said of the mammal, which he described as a cross between a killer whale and a pilot whale.
Filled with water for the exercise, it caught the attention of some in the area.
One woman called PAN’s office to report a beached whale.
Another, a passerby, asked PAN, “Is it real?” before settling in to watch the training exercise.
Cottrell described the sling-and-pontoons system as one that has proven “huge” in getting beached whales back to safety and out into the water quicker.
Monday’s exercise was intended to replicate a real-life scenario.
The team established a perimeter around the inflatable, then worked the sling under the animal, inflated the pontoons and transported it into the water, where they waited for it to “equilibrate”; to get used to being back in the water.
In an actual stranding, there’s “not a lot of time” to get the job done, Cottrell said.
“The quicker, the better.”
The last large whale to beach in White Rock was a juvenile humpback, on East Beach in June 2012. Many tried to help the struggling mammal, which was entangled in fishing line, but unfortunately, it did not survive.
Cottrell said even if the system tested Monday had been available locally in 2012, it would not have saved the humpback.
That whale was in such poor condition, it had “no chance,” he said.
Cottrell said Monday’s training was “also about networking and understanding the logistics of this-size mammal.”
“This unit’s really specific for these mid-size cetaceans… that you can’t lift,” he said.
Cottrell said four sets of the rescue pontoons are to be strategically placed along the coast, including in Port Hardy, to prepare for future stranding incidents.
Training is to continue in other coastal communities this week, and a second session on West Beach is set for next Monday.