Every year a number of live cetaceans strand on Maritime shores. A number of these incidents involve individual animals; however, mass strandings involving more than one animal also occur. Cetaceans face a number of issues when stranded on a beach including exposure to sun and wind, overheating and suffocation and thus, it is critical that live animals are reported as soon as they are encountered.
If you find a stranded, injured or dead marine cetacean in the Canadian Maritime Provinces,
please call the Marine Animal Response Society Hotline at:
Live strandings involving individual animals have been recorded on all coasts. Mass strandings typically have been more localized to “hotspots” in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence along the Northumberland Strait and Western Cape Breton Island, along the southern coast of Cape Breton Island and in the Minas Basin and associated rivers of the Bay of Fundy. These “hotspots” may be related to coastal topography or other localized features.
If you see a cetacean that is stranded on land or in distress offshore, you should:
1. Determine if it is alive or dead
This is the first major question as some large cetaceans have the ability to hold their breath for over 20 minutes. Breathing is determined by watching for the opening or closing of the blowhole.
In the case of large cetaceans, it may be necessary to test their reflexes to determine if they are alive. To do this, light pressure can be gently put on the eyelid or the corner of the eye, the area around the blowhole can be lightly touched or the jaw can be gently opened. If alive, the animal will close their eye, blowhole or resist attempts to open its mouth.
If the animal is dead or dies while being observed, please see our ”What to do about dead animals” page and report it to MARS immediately as post mortem examination of any dead cetacean is very important.
2. What species is it?
If the animal is alive, the next important step is to determine what species it is.
It is important to identify the species as this will have major implications for the prognosis of a successful refloating. Generally, offshore species which strand (such as striped or Atlantic white-sided dolphins) have a much better recovery prognosis than inshore species (e.g. harbour porpoises). This is because, typically, pelagic or offshore species are often in good nutritive condition and more likely strand due to error, whereas coastal species, which should be used to navigating in coastal waters, are generally diseased or in poor condition. Also, the prognosis for the majority of animals involved in mass strandings is better than for those which strand alone.
Once you have this information, you should immediately contact MARS with the following information:
1. The exact location of the animal for accurate directions
2. The number of stranded animals
3. The time that you first sighted the animal(s)
4. The species of the animal, if you are able to identify it
5. A description of the animal (size, colouring, and other physical features)
6. A description of the animal’s condition. Is it weak and gaunt? Are there any open wounds?
7. Does it have any identification tags or markings?
8. After calling the Marine Animal Response Society, you may be given instructions that you can follow to help the stranded animal(s)
Things to keep in mind:
1. Do not touch, pick up or feed the animal(s) unless otherwise directed
2. Do not try to return the animal to the water or interact with the animal more than is necessary or directed. Whales and dolphins can carry diseases, bite, and harm people by swinging their tail.
3. Observe the animal from a distance of at least 50 feet, if possible, and keep other people and dogs away from the area. One of the best things you can do is to keep the animal calm by keeping crowds away and keeping noise to a minimum.
4. If possible, take photographs of the animal from all angles.
5. If many whales stranded, take note which whale stranded first, if known
First Aid Treatment
The following are the key steps which trained rescuers utilize to assist live stranded cetaceans:
1. Don’t panic and don’t move the animal
Cetaceans are quite capable of living out of water for some time (with a little help). In some cases, dolphins or smaller whales have been successfully refloated even after being held for several days on shore.
More harm than good is often done during rushed attempts to refloat a stranded cetacean so DO NOT attempt to push or drag the animal back into the water without first seeking professional advice. Never attempt to drag an animal back into the water by it’s tail, it will most likely lead to irreversible damage to it’s tail and spine.
It is very important to note that not every animal which comes ashore alive is a good candidate to be refloated. When possible, a trained veterinarian or professional should be onsite to assess the condition of the animal and determine the best course of action.
2. Stabilize the animal
The goal is to ensure that the animal can breathe and will not overheat or become too stressed.
- The animal should be supported in an upright position, if possible, digging trenches under the pectoral flippers
- Keep the animal moist by covering it with wet sheets or towels, sprayed or doused gently with a constant supply of water. Cool water should be applied to the whole body, particularly the rear half, as the tail stock appears to be an important site for heat dumping. Do NOT use very cold water or ice on the flukes and fins.
- The blowhole should NOT be covered, and care should be taken to avoid any water or sand entering it. The blowhole’s margins can be protected from drying out by smearing them with lubricating jelly or zinc oxide cream.
- In sunny weather, try to provide shade for the animal by erecting a tarp.
- If the weather is cold and windy, particularly when dealing with emaciated animals and neonates, erect windbreaks and soak the sheets in mineral oil (e.g. liquid paraffin), rather than water.
- Caution: Care should be taken around the tail fluke of the animal as a thrashing cetacean can cause serious injury or death. Also minimize contact with the animal and avoid inhaling the animals expired breath as they can carry diseases humans can contract.
- All noise, contact and disturbance around the animal must be kept to a minimum. If possible, the area should be cordoned off and someone should b assigned the task of crowd control.
- A beachmaster should be appointed to liaise with federal fisheries officers, media and the crowd and to ensure that the veterinary and rescue teams can work without being disturbed.
3. Seek help!
Any further steps towards rescuing the beached animal must be taken only after seeking the advice and support of experienced professionals.
Once on site, trained professionals and/or veterinarians will attempt to assess the condition of the animal to determine if it is a good candidate to be refloated or if another option is more suitable.
Initial assessment may indicate what caused the stranding and whether the animal is a suitable candidate for a refloat attempt. With species such as sperm whales that may breathe as little as once every 20-40 minutes, assessing whether the animal is alive or dead may require soliciting reflexes from blowhole or corneal movement (see above).
Knowledge of the species and size of the animal can help you assess whether the animal is pelagic or coastal, or a separated newborn calf. Under no circumstances should attempts be made to refloat calves that are likely to be unweaned.
Body condition can be assessed by examination of its body profile, especially the extent of the lumbar muscles and any external lesions. Breathing rates will help assess whether the animal is stressed. Core body temperature will indicate if the animal’s condition is critical or terminal. Further information on assessment criteria is available to trained members of MARS.
Options for live stranded animals
Options in the Maritime Provinces are restricted to three options: refloating, euthanasia or letting nature take its course. No facilities for rehabilitation exist. Only animals in good body condition and free from significant lesions or illness should be refloated.
Euthanasia may be the best option for small cetaceans, but should only be considered with veterinary guidance. The best way to euthanize is through administering drugs, which should only be done by a vet. Shooting is not a preferred option as it can be difficult to execute (minimum .303 rifle and must penetrate the skull and brain) and is distressing for the animal and onlookers. Shooting should only be considered when other alternatives are not available. The person must have a firearm licence, be approved by DFO and should be trained in the correct methods used to destroy an animal in this manner.
Large whales pose a significant problem. Time is of the essence for large whales because with every minute, they grow hotter and the pressure on their internal organs from the large muscle mass on their backs increases. Euthanasia is typically not an option for larger whale species as it is often difficult to determine the correct dosage to give an animal of great size and if you do, disposal is an issue as the animal is now contaminated with toxic material. Using a firearm is also not considered an option for large whales as they have very thick skulls and locating the brain is very difficult. Refloating is very difficult and stressful for large whales and if done incorrectly, can lead to serious injury (e.g. dislocation of the spine or severing of the flukes) and death. Typically, the most we can do for large animals is to try to make them more comfortable, minimize noise and other stressors and allow them to die naturally.
When possible, refloating should be attempted on rising tides. Once in the water, the cetacean’s equilibrium has to be restored. This involves gently rocking the animal, which sometimes takes several hours. Prior to release, the animal’s behaviour should be monitored for several hours to ensure re-stranding does not occur. Transport of an animal to a different release site should only be carried out if it is essential (and using approved techniques) and if it can be done in under 2 hours. In mass stranding events, those animals unlikely to survive should be euthanized and animals suitable for refloat should be refloated together.
A re-floated animal is not necessary a rescued animal. Sometimes an animal can’t or shouldn’t be re-floated and euthanizing or allowing an animal die naturally on a beach has to be considered a successful outcome to a live stranding.
Municipalities are responsible for disposal of dead cetaceans. No animals should be buried until scientists from MARS, the AVC, NB Museum, NS Museum or another approved academic or federal institution have had an opportunity to examine them as we can learn a lot from each stranded animal.
All marine mammals are protected under the federal Fisheries Act. It is illegal for unauthorized individuals to touch, disturb, feed or otherwise harass these animals.A scientific licence is required to handle marine mammals and, depending on the species, a Species at Risk permit may also be required. MARS annually applies for and receives these permits.