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What to do when you spot a whale that’s washed ashore

When whales wash ashore, it might be people's first instinct to help push them back in the water. It is the wrong course of action, says an official with the Nova Scotia-based Marine Animal Response Society.

Expert says people could cause harm if they try to push whales back into the water

Around two-dozen members of the public are shown trying to help roughly a dozen pilot whales who have washed ashore in Port Hood, N.S.

When whales wash ashore, it might be people's first instinct to help push them back in the water.

It is the wrong course of action, says Tonya Wimmer, the executive director of the Nova Scotia-based Marine Animal Response Society.

"Being able to do assessments of the animal prior to putting them back in the water is very important so that we make sure we're doing the right thing for the animal, but also for keeping people safe," she said.

Last weekend, 11 pilot whales washed ashore in Port Hood, N.S. A crowd of bystanders tried to get the whales back into the water. Only three whales survived.

While Wimmer appreciates the desire to assist, she cautions that people could end up doing harm to the animals and themselves.

A large crowd gathers where a whale has washed ashore in Harbourville, N.S., in 2018.

Wimmer said if people come across a whale washed ashore, they should phone the society's emergency hotline at 1-866-567-6277.

The society responds to cases of stranded, injured, entangled and dead marine animals in the Maritimes.

By providing information on the animal's condition to the dispatcher, it helps the society determine what kind of response it will need to do when its team is sent to the site.

Depending on the expertise of the people at the scene, such as whether they're fisheries officers, the hotline responder may be able to provide some advice.

One definite no-no is not to pour water on a whale's blowhole, said Wimmer. She said it can impair their breathing and cause them to asphyxiate.

"The same as we wouldn't really like to have water poured up our nose, they don't [like it] either," said Wimmer.

Volunteer opportunities

She said the society has trained volunteers to assist when marine animals are in trouble. She encourages people to check out the group's website to learn about volunteer opportunities so that people can get the necessary training to help out.

Wimmer said it's important for the team to assess the health of the whale before deciding what to do. She said some may be too injured to put back in the water, a process she called "refloating."

When the pilot whales washed ashore in Port Hood last weekend, people who tried pushing the whales back in the water noted that some quickly returned to shore.

Wimmer said pilot whales are social and often travel in family units.

"If you have any animals left on shore, even if you've refloated a few, they often turn back around to go into help or to be with their counterparts," she said.

Wimmer said this highlights why the response must be done by a trained team.

She said the society receives some funding from Fisheries and Oceans Canada for its work.

In a statement, the department said it encourages people to call the society's emergency hotline if they encounter stranded marine animals, and reminded people of the danger they could be putting themselves in by helping out.

Satellite tagging

Wimmer said she'd like for the society to place satellite tags on the whales they refloat, which would allow officials to get a better understanding of the whale's fate. But this would require additional funding and training for the charity.

"That would help us figure out if what we're doing is right and is working and be able to get a lot more information too about where these animals go," she said.

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