First aid for stranded whales and dolphins
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In Peru it is a civil duty to assist a stranded whale or dolphin. The Peruvian law according to Supreme decree N° 002-96-PE obliges everybody to return live specimen of small cetaceans to the sea:
Article 4 declares that animals, being caught alive in nets of local or industrial fisheries, have to be returned to the sea alive.
Article 5 declares that animals, stranded alive with any chance to survive have to be returned to the ocean.
Returning a whale or dolphin to the sea, however, is not an easy undertaking and the best thing to do would be to inform a specialist on cetaceans to take the lead in this operation. Sadly in Peru there are very few scientists with knowledge about cetaceans.
So basically it’s the local people that will have to deal with such cases. This page will provide you with detailed advice on how to give first aid to a cetacean, how to attempt rescue or at least relieve his pain while dying. Also just as important is how to avoid injuries in human helpers and bystanders.
The first and most important rule is to REDUCE STRESS on the animal. Stress kills !
To do so, keep machinery, people and dogs away from the animal. These animals hear through the lower jaw, so any vibrations on the sand will be a most invasive distressing sound. If people offer to help, organize them into shifts so that at any one time, the most amount of people working close to the animal will be five or six. Ask these helpers to talk quietly, and generally be as quite as possible. At night, keep lights out of the animal’s eyes. In case journalists appear, they will like to take pictures using flashlights or film the animal using lights. Those type of lights are absolutely forbidden around a stranded dolphin. They threaten the animal’s survival. Dolphins are used to only natural light i.e. stars and moon at night. A bright light will stress them needlessly.
The animal has to be kept wet.
But when pouring water on the animal do it gently and slowly. Throwing buckets at the animal will distress it and worsen the situation, and definitely will not work to cool the animal down. Pour gently, and make sure that any sand in the bucket has settled on the bottom before you pour. So don’t quite empty the bucket, the last thing the animal needs is sand in it’s skin. Form a bucket-brigade; kids are great for this, as they never seem too tired. But of course pouring water on the animal should be the adult’s business as it needs a bit more skill and concentration.
Do not pour water anywhere near the blowholes.
Remember these animals have only one passage for air to reach the lungs, i.e. blowholes. They cannot breathe through their mouth. It’s vital not to let any water get into the lungs, as this will cause pneumonia. If you want to flush the area around the blowholes, first get a handle on the respiration rate. Then wait until the animal as finished exhaling and inhaling, and the blowholes are tightly shut, then gently pour around the blowholes.
Do not rub the animal with sandy hands.
If people insist on stroking the animal, make sure they rinse their hands in a bucket of water first.
Do not cover the eyes, blowholes, dorsal fin, the pectoral fins or flukes with towels, etc.
The dorsal fin, the pectoral fins and flukes are the temperature regulating appendages. Covering them will prevent the animal from adjusting it’s temperature and blocking the animal’s vision will stress it.
Do not apply sunscreens.
They impede the skin functions. The best protection from the sun is shade (from umbrellas, tents and wet cloths.
For their own safety, don’t let people stand near their flukes.
The animal, if frightened, might swing those flukes which can break our bones as if they were matchsticks.
Moving the animal
YOU SHOULD NEVER TRY TO MOVE THE ANIMAL. THIS WILL PROBABLY ONLY CAUSE FURTHER DAMAGE TO IT’S HEALTH. ONLY IF IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO CONTACT A SPECIALISTS YOU MAY ACT ACCORDING TO THE FOLLOWING RULES IN ORDER TO TRANSPORT THE ANIMAL INTO THE WATER:
Moving the animal from the beach into the water and letting it go is not possible. The minimum rehabilitation time is 24 hours. During the first hours it might be necessary to maintain the animal at the surface. Having been laying on the beach, the dolphin might be too stiff and accompanied by cramps and may not be able to swim by itself and would drown if just put into the water. So helpers will have to support and gently massage the animal around the clock in 20 minute shifts.
It would be best if the helpers are equipped with full wetsuits, booties and hoods, to do so.
Before putting the animal in the water you also have to evaluate if the wave-action on the beach allows you to rehabilitate the animal or if it is necessary to transport it to a nearby bay, being more sheltered.
In order to move the animals in other countries, specially designed mats are used. There are not any such instruments in Peru, so you will have to do as best as possible under the given circumstances. Read carefully the following advice:
Be careful with the pectoral fins. Never roll the animal. The vertebrae need special attention, so that no part of the vertebrae is left unsupported nor moved in an opposing direction.
The pectorals are finely boned, having the same bones as our arms. These appendages are used for steering. So if any of the pectoral bones are damaged, the animal will not be able to swim in a straight line. So never use the pectoral fins to move the animal. You will dislocate the scapula. The pectoral fins are not handles for the convenience of rescuers!
Carefully dig a hole in the sand around the pectoral fins (using your hands) so that they can rest in a more natural position.
When it is decided to move the animal, please warn everybody, that the pectoral fins are very fragile and that someone should hold the pectoral fins gently against the animal’s body so that these bones are not dislocated during the move. If there is a chance to choose the time for the move, choose high tide – less distance between the animal and the water.
Groups of dolphins: Sometimes a whole group of dolphins and small whales become stranded. In this case, some of the animals might still be in the water. Try to avoid them also become stranded. This will not work by making noise, but by carefully pushing them into deeper water, using boats or people. Try to bring the animals on the beach to the group in the water. Then escort the group with boats into open water. Groups are often structured in several subgroups with tight bonding between the individuals. Try to identify such subgroups and start with them.
Special tips for Veterinarians
There are very few veterinarians with experience on marine mammals in Peru. If you are a veterinarian unfamiliar with dolphins, you should take the following into consideration, when assessing the state of the animal:
1. Using a probe in order to take the animal’s temperature is extremely stressful as you have to roll the animal to it’s side, which is against all common sense, particularly with a larger animal. You might break the bones of one of the pectoral fins and worsen the situation. Best to gauge the temperature by one person standing near the blowholes and waiting for the next blow. Hold one hand about half a meter above the blowholes and keep it there when the animal blows. Then also blow in your other hand. Is there a great difference in the relative warmth of your breath against that of the dolphin’s breath ? Do this every hour or so and write down your observations.
2. Keep a record of the respiration and pulse rate. Have somebody writing down the exact time (hour, minute and second) for each breath. If there is a dramatic change in respiration rate, check if there is an external cause (such as a loud noise from generators, cars, dogs barking or people screaming). Always include a note of such disturbances alongside the record for breath.
3. To get a pulse is really only possible when the animal is floating. Place your hand under the left pectoral fin (the animal’s left) and you will feel the beat.
4. Keep record of the animal’s movement. Is it flitching?; Is it moving it’s head?, Pectoral fins or fluke; is it shivering?, etc
What to do if the animal is too ill or wounded and can not be rehabilitated or if the animal dies:
1. If the animal is obviously too sick or wounded to be rehabilitated, the only thing you can do is try to make it’s situation more comfortable by digging holes for the pectoral fins to be in a more natural position, keeping it wet and in the shade.
2. Never try to kill a dolphin with the intention to make it suffer less. Supreme decree No. 002-96-PE, Article 6 prohibits any harassment, injuring or intentional mutilation of small cetaceans. As probably not being experienced with dolphins’ anatomy, you also will not find the right places to kill a dolphin quickly and your intent will cause the animal only greater and unnecessary pain. Do not try to kill a dolphin by shooting it in the head. The bullet most probably will not penetrate the strong bones of the head and might bounce off and hurt bystanders.
3. If the animal has died, do not allow anybody to cut off the animal’s dorsal meat for human consumption. First, the animal might have been seriously ill and it might be dangerous to consume it and secondly the law Supreme decree No. 002-96-PE, Article 3 prohibits the consumption of fresh or processed dolphin meat.
Violations of these regulations mentioned previously on this web site can be punishable with the suspension of concessions, authorizations, permits or licenses for 180 days and one to three years in jail.
Whale watching and conservation initiatives:
Whale and dolphin watching offers an economic alternative to whaling and support species conservation. Whale watching tours are also offering research opportunities. Support species conservation and research, while enjoying whales and dolphins in Peru with Nature Expeditions.
Become a dolphin conservation volunteer and support the conservation and research programs of Mundo Azul.
What we do to stop the dolphin slaughter in Peru:
According to our estimate between 5000 and 15000 dolphins are killed illegally in Peru each year to be used as shark bait by Peruvian fishermen. Additionally up to 3000 dolphins are killed each year illegally in Peru for human consumption. In 2002 Mundo Azul started investigating the Peruvian black market on illegally caught dolphin meat. The dolphin meat is regularly landed at night on beaches near the ports in order to avoid the controls of harbor officials. At this point, the meat is already cut into small pieces and hidden in boxes, while heads, flukes, bones and intestines have been thrown over board before or while entering the harbor. The meat is then openly sold on local markets. In 2013 Mundo Azul uncovered the massive dolphin kill for shark bait. Stefan Austermühle, Executive Director of Mundo Azul, managed to travel in a full month fishing trip and filmed the brutal killing of dolphins – pictures that sent a shock wave around the world. Please support our campaign to pressure the Peruvian government to act decisively in order to end the dolphin killing in Peru.
Mundo Azuls volunteers are engaged in undercover investigation of illegal sales of dolphin meat. We are then providing the collected intelligence to the Peruvian police and are actively supporting the implementation of police raids. We are also supporting the Peruvian police thru capacity building. Raising public awareness and environmental education are further activities of our dolphin conservation campaign. We are engaged in dolphin research providing us with important baseline information for conservation planning. Finally we are promoting whale and dolphin watching as a sustainable economic alternative to illegal dolphin killing.
We are also active on an international level against dolphin captivity and whaling.
What you can do to stop the dolphin slaughter in Peru
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