10 questions with a marine mammal rescue expert

Wild Pacific Rescue Photo Courtesy of White Pine Pictures Inc.

From whales to sea pups, Lindsaye Akhurst has seen just about every marine mammal the B.C. coast has to offer—in fact, she’s helped save many of their lives. Akhurst is the manager of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (MMR), a not-for-profit hospital started by the Ocean Wise Conservation Association to treat sick, injured, or orphaned marine mammals that have been impacted by human activity or interference.

On top of that, Akhurst is also one of the stars of Cottage Life TV’s newest shows Wild Pacific Rescue, which follows veterinarian Dr. Marty Haulena and his team as they rescue and rehabilitate marine mammals. To find out more about marine mammals, Akhurst answered our top 10 questions about the MMR.

What is your role at the MMR?

I’m the manager of Ocean Wise’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. I’ve been here for almost 15 years. I’m also a registered veterinary technician, so essentially an animal nurse by trade. My role at the MMR is very diverse. It kind of changes day-to-day. But it involves animal care, which means rotating through the schedule, treating and working with the animals we have in the centre, medical-wise and husbandry-wise. I also manage the facility and staff here.

Wild Pacific Rescue
Photo Courtesy of White Pine Pictures Inc.

How did you become interested in marine mammals?

It’s the cliché that I always knew I wanted to work with animals. It’s the first line for the majority of people that work in this industry. But I grew up on a farm where we had a bunch of different animals, more of a hobby farm. We always had things like chickens and horses and everything else in between. So, I always worked around animals, and then I went to school to be a veterinary technician. I worked a few places after that and did a wildlife internship. It was only coincidental that it ended up being marine mammals. I thought I’d be working with domestic animals for the rest of my career.

What’s the best part of your job?

Again, it sounds cliché, but I work with an amazing group of people. The core of us outlined in the show are very close. And within the past year, we became a lot closer with the circumstances around the pandemic. Besides my immediate family, they are my bubble. I think of them as my work family.

Plus, not many people can wake up every day and think, okay, this is my job. I look forward to seeing the people I work with everyday and we have a lot of fun.

What animals do you have at the MMR right now?

Right now, we have three animals, two of which are in intensive care. One is a sea otter pup that was found stranded on a beach in Port Hardy, which is on the north eastern side of Vancouver Island. The animal was fairly non responsive, and she’s been on 24-hour care. And then the other patient we have in intensive care right now is a steller sea lion. She was found stranded on the beach near Pacific Rim National Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Wild Pacific Rescue
Photo Courtesy of White Pine Pictures Inc.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen on a rescue?

It changes all the time. With our job, one minute you can be on site here placing orders for supplies and then we get a phone call and have to drop everything to be able to respond as quickly as possible. Some cases, for instance, like a whale, porpoise, or dolphin that’s strand (when the animal becomes stuck on land), that’s something that we need to get to them quite quickly.

One time, I was coming off of a 12-hour overnight shift looking after a sea otter when we received a call that a harbour porpoise had strand just outside of Vancouver. So, I basically went from looking after the sea otter to driving to get the porpoise and bring the animal back to our facility.

What’s one of the most uplifting moments you’ve experienced?

One of my favourite rescues comes back to our disentanglement program. What we often see is those packing bands that come in shipping boxes. For whatever reason, they find their way into the ocean and sea lions find them quite interesting. So, they start playing with them and it’ll get stuck around their necks. So, a few years ago, we were out at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve and we darted a sea lion for sedation because it had a packing band around its neck. But then we lost him. He went under water. So, we followed the current and eventually found him, and me and our assistant manager, Emily, were the ones to cut the packing band off. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

Wild Pacific Rescue
Photo Courtesy of White Pine Pictures Inc.

What are the biggest threats to marine mammals?

It depends on the species and what part of British Columbia. We have seen an increase in entanglements, but it’s hard to say if we’re actually seeing an increase in the number of animals entangled in marine debris or if people now know who to call when they see that. We do have certain times of year that we get more calls about sea lions that are entangled in something. It usually happens around certain runs, like the salmon run or the herring spawn.

What can people do to help marine mammals?

Obviously calling us is the most important thing to do, so we’re aware of the animal. But it could be in the summertime at a busy beach, so trying to get some crowd control until someone is able to come and assist is useful. Also giving the animal space. Because we live in Vancouver, we have a high human population, so human-wildlife interactions have increased. If you do come across an injured animal, stay back.

Another initiative we try to push is called lose the loop. So, if you get packages that do have those packing bands on them, we ask that people cut them. If you are ordering something online, try to make sure the packaging is eco-friendly.

How do you diagnose the animals?

Our veterinarian, Dr. Marty Haulena, he’s experienced a lot and he’s board certified, so he has a huge knowledge base. And the industry itself is quite small, so if you have a case where the animal is presenting certain things, you can go to other people at other rehabilitation centres or other aquariums or zoos and ask how they’re treating it. The industry is really collaborative. There’s no competition. Everybody’s doing it to help the animals.

Wild Pacific Rescue
Photo Courtesy of White Pine Pictures Inc.

Do you have a favourite animal?

With 15 years of dealing with 100 to 200 animals a year, there are definitely some that stick out. Being able to release a harbour porpoise back in 2013 was a highlight for me. That animal’s name was Levi and he was the first harbour porpoise ever released in Canada. So, we made it through the rehabilitation process with him, which was pretty neat.

Another one that really sticks out is a harbour porpoise named Daisy. She came to us in 2008, and was super exciting because she was a neonatal calf, so estimated between a month or two old. She was found stranded on a beach with no mom in sight, and quite emaciated, which meant she’d been away from mom for a long enough period of time to lose weight. She was brought into our centre and she lived through the process. But she wasn’t releasable, so she lived the rest of her life in the Vancouver Aquarium. She was an incredible animal that taught us so much in a short period of time.

Wild Pacific Rescue premieres Wednesday, April 14 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, exclusively on Cottage Life during the channel’s nationwide free preview event running until May 2.

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