Living the life aquatic

In 2014, a baby false killer whale became stranded on Chesterman Beach on the west side of Vancouver Island after becoming separated from his mother. Its skin was cut and bleeding from the rocks, it was suffering from malnutrition and hypothermia, and its chances of survival were less than 10 per cent.

Martin Haulena, chief veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium, directed his rescue team of eight while obtaining the necessary permits and paperwork to bring the young false killer whale back to the aquarium. Local law enforcement and about 180 volunteers helped the team as they worked to stabilize “Chester” and transport him.

“We got him into the pool and he was like a floating log, completely unresponsive,” says Haulena, DVM ’93, M.Sc. ’99. He worked around the clock providing intensive treatment as Chester was fed by syringe and kept afloat using special flotation devices.

Today, Chester is healthy and tips the scales at 300 kilograms. “He’s a big energetic goofball who just loves to play,” says Haulena. As an orphan, Chester became a permanent resident and currently shares his pool with dolphin Helen. He is known for his interactions with visitors and has befriended a little boy with autism who visits frequently — when his human friend arrives, Chester will often race around with him on the other side of the pool windows.

“To me, that’s a terrific example of how important the human-animal bond is for both people and the animals under our care,” says Haulena.

Chester is one of more than 100 marine mammals that Haulena helps rescue each year — ranging from various types of seals to a porpoise and a killer whale — with the goal is of rehabilitating and releasing them back into their natural habitat.

Haulena fell in love with marine animals when he was seven years old and touched a dolphin while vacationing in Florida. “I’m one of those lucky kids who got to do what I always wanted to do,” he says. He worked at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, for nine years before arriving in Vancouver.

His routine at the aquarium includes daily rounds to check on any recovering animals and identify new medical issues. Preventive care for the nearly 1,000 species living at the aquarium is a priority: a recent day included a physical exam on a sea otter and a necropsy on a mudskipper.

Haulena says caring for the aquarium’s animals allows veterinarians to study them in-depth, providing knowledge that helps with their rescue work and contributes to better care for animals in the wild. Through his work treating a sea lion with cancer, for example, Haulena and his team developed a method to remotely sedate wild sea lions that have become entangled in debris and garbage. This causes considerable suffering and can be fatal to the animals, and disentangling them from a boat in open water can be dangerous — Haulena is the only veterinarian in Canada able to perform these rescues. His technique, which he’s shared with other rescue groups, has helped save many more sea lions.

Haulena is currently studying the sea star wasting syndrome that is causing sea stars along the Pacific Coast to die off.

“Working with the sea stars has helped me appreciate the diversity of life on this planet,” he says. “As a kid, I thought dolphins were cool. But this work reminds me that all forms of life are so precious, and so vulnerable to what we as humans are doing to them. I’m grateful to be able to do even a little to help them.” – TERESA PITMAN