911 for the Life Aquatic: Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Response Network

For dolphins, whales or seals in bad situations, Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Response Network knows just what to do.

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Kristi West, center, and assistants pick through the stomach contents of a pygmy sperm whale.

Dead Whales Tell Useful Tales

Kristi West keeps her dissection knives, specimen containers and carcass bag ready to go at all times. As director of the Marine Mammal Response Network’s stranding program, she performs the necropsies—the animal equivalent of human autopsies—on the dolphins and whales who meet their ends on or near shore.

Twenty times a year or so, West drops what she’s doing and rushes to the scene of a marine mammal stranding. As an associate professor of biology at Hawaii Pacific University, this means her students sometimes show up for class and find a sign saying something like, “Class canceled due to pygmy sperm whale stranding on Molokai.”

She wastes no time, because, when it comes to dissecting big, dead sea creatures, the fresher the better. “We lose information if we wait,” West says.

Hawaiian waters have some 20 different species of dolphins and whales, most of them rarely seen and little known. Strandings offer scientists invaluable opportunities to learn about their biology and ecology. “This is our opportunity to find out what they’re doing out there and how they’re making a living,” West says.


The whale ate a lot of squid, as this collection of squid beaks reveals.

Most strandings occur on the Neighbor Islands, often in remote spots demanding long hikes. Once, a pilot whale came ashore on Kailua Beach, a few blocks from West’s home, but that was a lucky break.

If possible, West brings her subjects to her outdoor necropsy lab, located in a remote corner of HPU’s Kaneohe campus, where nobody will complain about the smell. Only the smallest whales make it back to the lab, and small, in this case, is usually defined by Aloha Air Cargo, which has a 14-foot, 2,500-pound limit on such freight. If the animals aren’t fit for flight, or if they’re too remotely located to zip up in an ice-packed carcass bag and lug to the airport, West and a small team of research assistants—mostly students—set up a field lab and get to work.

Marine mammal necropsies are a gory business, but sometimes West finds pleasant surprises. While examining a decomposed pygmy sperm whale on a Lanai beach, for instance, she discovered a remarkably well-preserved fetus. (If you have a professional interest in the reproductive physiology of poorly understood cetacean species, this does indeed count as a pleasant surprise.)

There are also breakthroughs. Once, on Molokai, West examined what she thought was a Curvier’s beaked whale. It had an unusually shaped skull, but West figured she had just found an odd-looking individual. Not until she had a genetic analysis done did she discover the whale was actually a Longman’s beaked whale—a species that had long been suspected to exist in Hawaii but never confirmed until then.

Animals rarely strand themselves unless they’re gravely ill. If they’re still clinging to life when West arrives, and there’s clearly no chance of saving them, she administers a high dose of pentobarbital, much the way veterinarians euthanize dogs or cats.

There have been cases in other parts of the world where people have helped apparently healthy dolphins or whales back into deep water, and the animals have gone on their way. That’s yet to happen in Hawaii, West says. Typically, the animals just restrand themselves when people push them back into the sea. Well-meaning people trying to save a stranded animal usually aren’t doing it a favor, West says. “It’s similar to somebody stumbling onto the sidewalk after getting hit by a car, and you give them a drink of water and a Band-Aid, then push them back into traffic,” she says. “It’s considered ill-advised.”
 

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