Nova Scotia

New online course trains Maritimers who want to help marine animals in distress

The Marine Animal Response Society's marine animal medic course moved online last month. It's free and open to anyone who wants to volunteer.

'This is about trying to ... harness that passion of people who care so much,' says Tonya Wimmer of MARS

This blue whale, an endangered species, washed ashore in Cape Breton in 2019. (Elizabeth Zwamborn/MARS)

The Marine Animal Response Society is training Maritimers so they can jump into action and help when an animal is found dead or in distress.

The Nova Scotia-based society's marine animal medic course moved online last month. It's free and open to prospective volunteers who want to get a sense of how they can lend a hand.

"We just need some eyes on the ground of someone who might be able to go and collect a little more information, check on the animal — whether it's alive or dead — and basically help us gather the correct information to help us decide what to do next," Tonya Wimmer, a marine biologist and executive director of MARS, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet.  

The beginner lessons include a rundown on the organization itself as well as tips on identifying different species. There are plans to roll out more in-depth and hands-on training when COVID-19 restrictions allow, said Wimmer. 

Tonya Wimmer with the Marine Animal Response Society spoke with guest host Preston Mulligan about the importance of volunteers and how they can get involved. 9:09

MARS has a roster of about 400 volunteers from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I., but Wimmer said they could always use more help. 

Volunteers are critical to the work the society does because locals are usually the ones who first discover that a whale or other marine animal has washed ashore. 

"People who want to get involved are from all walks of life in our communities and our industries," Wimmer said, "and this is about trying to find a way to harness that passion of people who care so much for these animals and find ways that they can get involved."

From taking photos to crowd control

Once they've completed the training, volunteers could be asked to visit an area to make sure reports of a dead or injured animal are in fact true. From there, they may be asked to collect photos or ensure the public and pets stay far enough away from the animal.

Once volunteers have completed higher levels of training, they may be asked to help with more complicated scenarios like trying to return a beached whale to the sea, Wimmer said.

"That could be anything from being able to relocate it and pick it up using stretchers, to actually trying to put a whale into our very large whale rescue pontoons, and that takes an awful lot more people," she said.

"You then have to deal with, not only a lot of people potentially around, but also an animal that might be very upset about its circumstances."

(Marine Animal Response Society/Facebook)

These situations can be dangerous for both people and animals, and Wimmer said there are special protocols in place that volunteers must learn. 

MARS has been offering its marine animal medic course for about 15 years, but this is the first time it's available online. 

Wimmer said she's still trying to secure funding but hopes to roll out the next level of training in the next year or so. 

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet

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