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'Whale rescue' on beach

Sunday, March 21 2010

click on pic to zoom in
'SUCCESSFUL RESCUE': Carrying model beach whale back into the ocean....
'SUCCESSFUL RESCUE': Carrying model beach whale back into the ocean....

Last week Wednesday, onlookers at Manzanilla Beach had to take a second look as there was a big “black fish” measuring 12 feet long, on the beach. The presence of a number of concerned volunteers attending to this creature could easily have led one to conclude that a whale was stranded at this location yet again. On closer inspection, it was realised that a model 12 feet minke whale was being tested to ensure its applicability for an upcoming training workshop on marine mammal rescue and research.

The volunteers present came from the Manatee Conservation Trust and The Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago, the two local organisations teaming up with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to conduct this training course in April.

Lisa Ramkissoon, president of the Manatee Conservation Trust explained that this organisation took the initiative to expose its members as well as other partner organisations to this type of training since they have been the first responders in the majority of stranding incidents in the country.

With regard to the east coast, the home base for the trust, this locality is known for its association with whale strandings. Few can forget that fateful day in 1999, when the Manatee Conservation Trust played a pivotal role in the saving of 14 of the 25 short-finned pilot whales which stranded on the Manzanilla Beach. Since then, strandings have occurred periodically, with at least three strandings recorded last year in the area. Two melon-headed whales, a pelagic species, were stranded in Mayaro and Manzanilla and another species which could not be identified due to the advanced state of decomposition, washed ashore dead in Guayaguayare.

Although behaviours and actions previously have been well-intentioned, it has been realised that the first responders could improve their interactionswhen such events occur, thus minimising stress on an already beleaguered animal.

To this end, Conservation Advisor to the ZSTT, Nadra Nathai-Gyan has been working with Dr Ian Robinson, Director Emergency Relief in IFAW to ensure that the workshop sessions address the information gaps and prepare first responders to handle stranding situations in a professional and humane manner. She has stated that aspects of the training include species identification, health and safety, animal welfare and live animal response, mass strandings, standardisation of data collection, human interaction, among others.

More importantly at the end of the workshop, a protocol will be adopted to guide any future stranding events. The workshop itself will be regional in nature, extending to include participants from Suriname and Guyana. Class-room sessions will be reinforced with hands-on training using the model whale tested during the simulated exercise just held. During this simulation, the volunteers also used pontoons to escort the “stranded whale” back to sea. To ensure that conditions will be as near as possible to the real situation, the whale was filled with a combination of air and water. Also on hand was a rubber dingy manoeuvred by Zookeeper Richard Joseph to monitor the whale once it was put back to sea.

Explaining the dilemma faced by conservationists as to the benefits of saving beached whales, which may in fact be doomed animals, Nathai-Gyan stated that the universal protocol is to attempt taking them back out to sea.

These animals are extremely intelligent and use communication effectively. Thus the distress call of an injured animal about to beach or already beached will cause the other members of the pod to come to its rescue.

Once this animal can be isolated and dealt with first, the others are more likely to follow with a successful return to their oceanic habitat.

As for the exercise of the day, Nirmal Biptah, Curator of the Emperor Valley Zoo who functioned as the quality inspector, pronounced the training materials in tip-top shape.

Participants can now look forward to April when the training sessions unfold.

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