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VIDEO: New whale rescue equipment comes to Rupert

Fisheries officers took to the water to practice saving stranded whales

In the waters off Seal Cove in Prince Rupert, eight fisheries officers gathered around an inflatable orca laying on the rocky beach.

The officers are using the plastic, weighted whale while training with new equipment specifically designed for the scenario in front of them.

Paul Cottrell, a marine mammal coordinator with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, is travelling around the province to run simulated stranded whale drills with the officers. On Jan. 18, Prince Rupert was one of four coastal locations participating in the training.

“This gear was just brought up in the last week, so we wanted to get on it right away,” Cottrell said. “As you know, we have fisheries officers all over the coast in key areas. The more officers we have trained for using this gear where the gear is, the more successful we’re going to be.”

From the U.K., the flotation pontoon is inflated on either side of the whale and attached to another piece that goes underneath, cradling it as its body readjusts to the water. There are now four pontoons in B.C., created specifically for mid-size whales such as orcas, minke whales, grey whale calfs and humpback calfs that become stranded — still alive — on the beach.

Marine animal rescues from land are tricky. Living their lives suspended in water, these large creatures aren’t made for the same kind of gravity as land animals.

“Whenever an animal live-strands, it’s very hard on the animal. The gravity is very difficult, so the blood pools on the bottom. These pontoons allow us to put it underneath and take the animals back into the water. It allows them to equilibrate, it allows them to get that blood flowing,” Cottrell said after the training session. “Thirty to 60 minutes in the water and then, if they’re healthy enough to do so, they’ll swim off. It’s a great thing when you can actually help, especially with these whale populations that are in trouble.”

Cottrell said using a tarp instead is more complicated and often not as successful.

READ and WATCH: Young minke whale rescued after beaching in Haida Gwaii

“We’ve had a number of strandings over the years on the North Coast, including just a couple of months ago we had a young minke whale up in Naden Harbour. Again, that whale was the size where this type of floatation pontoon would have been great. That particular instance, we had to wait for a full tidal cycle to come back and that’s very hard on the animal.

“This allows you to get in and act quicker,” Cottrell said. “This allows us to do a better job and hopefully save more whales.”

Cottrell said anyone who sees a whale or animal in distress can call the BC Marine Animal Response Network at 1-800-465-4336. The hotline is available 24-hours a day.

READ MORE: Volunteers rush to help beached whale

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SeaFisheries and Oceans Canada is training officers on how to rescue stranded whales along the B.C. coast. (Keili Bartlett / The Northern View)