False Killer Whale rescue

A false killer whale calf, a species of dolphin rarely seen off the coast of B.C., was rescued by scientists from the Vancouver Aquarium and DFO on Thursday. (Neil Fisher/Vancouver Aquarium)

A young false killer whale calf rescued on the west coast of Vancouver Island made it through the night, but the hard work of keeping it alive lies ahead, according to staff at the Vancouver Aquarium's Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.

The calf, which was originally thought to be a female, was found in poor condition Thursday morning on Tofino's North Chesterman Beach by locals.

As they fought to keep it alive, staff from the aquarium's rescue centre and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were called out to try to save it. 

False killer whale

Josie Osborne, the mayor of Tofino, B.C., uploaded this photograph of the juvenile false killer whale to Facebook on Thursday. The animal was stuck after washing ashore near a popular beach in the area. (Josie Osborne/Facebook)

Despite the efforts, the calf was unable to swim on its own and staff decided to transport it to the rescue centre in Vancouver on Thursday night for rehabilitation.

Once at the rescue centre, staff in wetsuits spent the night with the calf in the rehab pools keeping it afloat. Staff then learned that the two-metre-long calf is a male.

Critical dips in heart rate, respiration

On Friday morning, the aquarium's head veterinarian, Martin Haulena, said there was a lot of hard work ahead to keep the calf alive.

"The transport went well, but he is in critical condition and there were some worrying dips in his heart rate and respiration last night," Haulena said in a statement released by the aquarium.

"We've started treatment and have conducted diagnostic tests. The hope is that he begins to recover and slowly gain weight."

False killer whale

Staff at the Vancouver Aquarium kept the young false killer whale alive through the night. (Vancouver Aquarium/Twitter)

The aquarium estimates the male calf is four to six weeks old. A statement said the animal is in "poor condition, with several lacerations and wounds along his body, likely from stranding." 

"He is too weak to swim on his own. Members of the aquarium’s rescue team first held him in their arms in a pool, then transferred him to a specially designed floating sling that supports his weight. Treatment — including fluids, antibiotics and formula designed just for marine mammals — has already begun," the statement said.

"He’s very young. His teeth haven’t erupted, which indicates he was still nursing from his mother," Haulena said.

"Historically, stranded cetaceans have had a low chance of survival. It’s always touch-and-go with young marine mammals who have become separated from their mothers, and rescuing a false killer whale is a new experience for us — very few veterinarians and other professionals around the world have experience rehabilitating stranded false killer whale calves."

Aquarium controversy

The centre rescues stranded marine mammals and rehabilitates them for release into their natural habitat, but its connection with the Vancouver Aquarium makes it controversial.

Haulena said his focus was on saving the dolphin and not on the controversy surround the keeping of cetaceans in captivity.

False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) are a species of oceanic dolphins, which are distinct from the killer whale (Orcinus orca). They are only rarely sighted in B.C. waters.

Like some types of killer whales, they live in the open ocean around the world and hunt other types of marine mammals.

"It's often considered to be a tropical or sub-tropical species. So there is some interesting questions about why the animals are here, what they're doing here and how they migrate in response to water temperatures and climates and seasons," said Haulena.

Three groups living around the Hawaiian Islands are among the most studied populations.

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With files from The Canadian Press