UH Hilo week of welcome marked by marine mammal rescue

University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo
Alyson Kakugawa-Leong, (808) 974-7642
Director, Media Relations, University Relations
Posted: Aug 19, 2010

Freshmen students attending the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo annual week of welcome got a rare opportunity to witness first-hand efforts to nurse an injured marine mammal back to health.

As the new students began their week of orientation activities on Monday to prepare for the start of classes next week, the Coast Guard was flying in a Blainville's beaked whale for treatment at UH Hilo’s Hawaiʻi Cetacean Rehabilitation Facility (HCRF). The 1,800 pound, 11 and a half foot-long female is unique in that she is the only live beaked whale ever brought into rehab in Hawaiʻi. A rarely seen and little understood species which hunts at tremendous depths, she was observed swimming back and forth in shallow waters off Kihei, Maui.

Word of the animal’s impending arrival reached HCRF Director and UH Hilo Marine Science Associate Professor Jason Turner as an incoming freshman and her mother had arrived at his office to seek advising assistance. After explaining the situation and arranging for a colleague to assist the student, Turner rushed to the facility and was later surprised to see the pair show up at the site.

“They were there to actually witness the whale being brought in,” Turner explained. “Its funny, but sometimes it takes a newcomer’s perspective to remind us what a rare and unique experience this is.”

The facility, located at the University’s Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center in Keaukaha on the Big Island, is the only one of its kind in Hawaiʻi and the Pacific region dedicated to the humane care and treatment of sick, injured and out-of-habitat whales and dolphins. It is also one of only three such centers in the United States operated by a University.

Turner said news of the whale’s arrival has spread and while the facility has tried to balance the public’s interest without compromising the animal’s rehabilitation, a group of students dropped by for a visit today.

“We had about 50 students from nearby Keaukaha Elementary School,” Turner said. “They were really fascinated to see something like this taking place right in their own backyard.”

Scholars are also taking interest in the work being performed. Turner says two academic publications will be coming out from the facility’s effort to save the whale.

The whale is currently receiving 24-hour care by trained volunteers, which include marine science students, marine biologists, veterinarians, NOAA officials and others who comprise the 220-member Hilo Marine Mammal Response Network (HMMRN). Responders have been working in shifts guiding the animal around the waters in the 25,000 gallon salt water pool, providing food and nutrition, and conducting a series of tests to determine the nature of her ailment.

Turner said they’ve received results from the blood work, hearing and ultrasound tests. Although the animal appears to have no hearing damage, the tests indicate she may have a kidney disorder.

This is the second animal that has been brought to the facility since the Center’s grand opening in March. A striped dolphin that beached on the Big Island’s Kona side was already in such bad shape that it died only hours after its arrival. But they are cautiously optimistic about their current patient, which appears to be much healthier.

“There are no known cases of a beaked whale being successfully rehabilitated and released, so we understand the challenge we’re facing,” Turner said. “But this animal is stabilizing and improving, and if we continue to see that for a month or two, then she just might become that first success story."