It's only natural to want to help a stranded animal, but without proper training, even the best intentions can backfire. When a newborn beluga whale washed up on a Canadian beach recently, one local family came to the rescue – and there's a lot we can learn from their actions because they stuck to the rules.
DO: Send out the call
The golden rule in the event of any stranding? Contact local wildlife officials. If you don't know who to call in your area, simply call the police. Law enforcement officials are usually well connected with rescue organisations in their region. If that fails, contact the nearest aquarium for advice.
The Milliard family, who found the baby whale, managed to contact officials from the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), who gave instructions before arriving on the scene.
DON'T: Put the animal back in the sea
While putting an ocean-dwelling creature back into the ocean after it strands may seem like an obvious move, it's not always a good plan.
"A stranded dolphin [or whale] is by definition not OK," says dolphin researcher Dr Justin Gregg. "And it's difficult to know why it has stranded. If it is injured or ill, then an expert needs to determine the best thing to do, and if it needs medical attention. Refloating it right away might not be the safest or best thing. And if it's too weak to swim well and keep its blowhole above water, it might drown."
And there's another problem with getting handsy with stranded marine animals: it's often illegal. In the US, for example, picking up, moving, or touching a dolphin or whale – even during a rescue attempt – is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and carries hefty fines.
DO: Maintain H2O flow
Not wanting to cause further stress or injury to the beluga, the Millard family opted to keep the animal wet using buckets, rather than relocating it.
"We also dug a ditch [around the baby] so that water would accumulate and its skin would hydrate," 15-year-old Nicholas Milliard told CBC. "Every five minutes we got it a bucket of water."
DON'T: Stop for a selfie
If there's one thing we can applaud here, it's that no one stopped for a baby whale selfie. Doing so might seem innocent enough, but snapping a quick photo is a great way to draw unwanted attention to the animal. After all: monkey see, monkey do. A horde of camera-wielding tourists recently caused the death of a baby dolphin in Argentina.
DO: Throw some shade
Just like you, whales can get sunburned! Baby whales are especially sensitive to both UV and heat exposure, and while putting sunscreen on a wild animal is a big no-no, there are safe ways to protect them from the glare.
Have an umbrella? Use it! If you don't, driftwood and draped clothing can make a fine shade structure. Another option is to cover the animal in towels soaked with sea water (just make sure you keep the blowhole unobstructed).
During this process, make as little contact with the animal as possible. Resist the urge to pet it: your "comforting" touch may cause more – not less – stress.
By sticking to these important rules, the Millard family managed to keep the tiny calf safe until expert help appeared on scene.
"The umbilical cord was still attached when we arrived," says the GREMM team [translated from French]. "So she had to be just a few hours old." The calf's young age suggests that its mother likely died during the birth.
After giving the infant a full work-up, Vancouver Aquarium veterinarian Martin Haulena deemed the infant strong enough for relocation. Like all mammals, beluga calves rely on their mother's milk to survive, so attempting to place one in a new pod is a gamble.
Back in 2008, GREMM introduced a similarly orphaned calf into a neighbouring pod, and found one of the matrons was willing to adopt and nurse the baby. The team hoped for similar success with this newborn. After about an hour, a pod was selected and the baby was released into the heart of the group.
She was observed swimming alongside two females for some 40 minutes, but eventually left to join another passing pod after the matrons showed little interest in nursing.
GREMM president Robert Michaud stresses that a release – rather than a captive rescue – was attempted here because of concerns about the status of the local population. Just a century ago, over 10,000 belugas cruised Canada's waters, but today just 880 individuals remain. Even the slightest chance that the whale calf could survive in the wild made it worth the risk.
"For now, we do not yet know the outcome of the story," he says. "The probability of a rescue like this working is very low, but it is a very real possibility."
The team urges locals to keep an eye out for sightings of the newborn. We'll be updating you as the story unfolds, and we're crossing our fingers for this youngster. Watch this space.
Top header image: sk8mama/Flickr