A whale of a time on P.E.I.

Wildlife biologist Chuck Gallison is the go-to guy for marine mammal strandings and more on Prince Edward Island

Mary MacKay comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on January 24, 2015

What do you do if you detect a malodorous deceased minke whale in your beachside backyard?

What if you spy a hulking hooded seal lumbering crankily down the Confederation Trail?

Or what if you spot a pack of pooped-out porpoises that have lost their way in the shoreline shallows?

On Prince Edward Island, provincial wildlife biologist Chuck Gallison is the go-to man for calls of this nature.

Since 1990, he has been having a whale of a time dealing with shoreline strandings and other marine mammal matters.

“There have been some wild ones. I rode on the back of a sperm whale. That was pretty amazing,” says this wildlife officer with the P.E.I. Forests, Fish and Wildlife division, who shared a presentation entitled Whales in the Waters of Prince Edward Island at a Nature P.E.I. meeting in Charlottetown recently.

Gallison is the Island’s representative on the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), which is a Maritime-based charitable organization that is dedicated to marine mammal conservation through rescue, education and research.

Firstly known as the Cradle of Confederation, P.E.I. is also geographically a coddling ground for all types of marine mammals.

“You have to back yourself up a little bit, put yourself in space, look down on P.E.I. and see where we sit in that Gulf of St. Lawrence — that whole picture (is the key),” Gallison says.

Fresh warm water from the Great Lakes flows into the gulf at one end and meets the cold salt water coming down from Newfoundland and Labrador.

“People also don’t realize that there’s water in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that’s 1,000 feet deep; there’s a big gully basically running from the Gaspe Bay right out. And so everything comes through this; this deep cold water hits this warm water, it circulates and there’s tons and tons and tons of food . . . . It’s a giant feeding area,” he adds.

“And most people don’t realize that the Gulf of St. Lawrence is one of the world’s great whale nurseries.

“This is where a number of different species of whales come and this is where they raise young. They feed. They might stay there for the whole summer and then they migrate back into the Atlantic.”

With this large migrating population comes mortalities; and no matter which way you bend, turn or try to refloat it, a beached marine mammal is one large oxygen breathing, but water-dependent package.

Once a marine mammal distress call comes in, Gallison does an assessment of the situation to determine if anything can be done safely save the animal.

“In many cases there is, and in some cases there isn’t,” he says.

“Again, you have to be humane to the creature. If it’s just going to suffer then maybe you can do something to (end that). Or if there’s a chance, (you might be able to refloat them) with a little bit of work, which means protecting them through the tide, because when the tide goes out the bigger ones just get crushed. They can’t breathe.

“They can survive in the air but they can’t survive being out of the water. A lot of them can do that one cycle; so they can survive that one tide out and one tide in. So you’ve got one crack at it. You’ve got to put a plan in motion.”

But sometimes even the best-made, laid-out plans will not work.

“A lot of it has to do with (the fact) that some of these (marine mammals, such as) pilot whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins, have this extremely tight family bond, to the point if one washes ashore, they’ll all go ashore with it,” Gallison says.

“Normally if it’s just one, he’s sick; that’s a clue . . . . But (there are times) when one comes and they’ll all come. So you can begin to try to refloat them and they’ll just go back again.”

A recent mass stranding of a pod of pilot whales in the Miscouche area was a prime example of this determined dedication.

“It was eerie. The bull was stranded and there were all these other pilot whales in twos and threes, so I got off (the dingy) and went under to see why they weren’t swimming away or what they were doing. They were all free swimming, quite content to be in the water, now they were in water where they were just floating. It wasn’t (a great depth) to be in,” Gallison says.

The team of MARS, Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC), Department of Fisheries and Oceans and provincial wildlife staff and volunteers managed to get the beached male back into deep water where the bull immediately put out a call to the rest of the pod.

“He was making clicking noises. I mean these are so loud — you can hear the whistles and clicks,” Gallison says. “He went one way and all the other eight whales came right to him. It was unbelievable to watch this behaviour happen because they were everywhere and they wouldn’t move (before that). But we got him off the beach and zoom they went right to him. And then there were nine of them in a little package.”

Unfortunately, when some of the team returned the next day they discovered two of the pilot whales didn’t make it safely to sea again.

This is where the other part of the Gallison’s job factors in.

A self-proclaimed government “mortician for marine mammals,” he connects with staff from the AVC to investigate dead marine mammals to find cause of death.

“Anything that we can handle easily — we normally can things that are under 20 feet long and around four or five tons — we can take that to the (AVC) because we like to do necropsies on them to get as much as science as we can get,” he says.

And the end of a long day, there are tales that can be told about a lengthy career in marine mammal rescue, such as his unexpected romp on the back of a sperm whale that was stuck on a P.E.I. sandbar in about six feet of water.

“It was moving so I thought, ‘OK it’s alive,’ and as I got close to it I stepped on its flipper. He just picked me up, and poof I wound up deposited on his back. So I’m sitting on the back of this sperm whale — 60 feet long, about 50 tons — and I know if he rolls over I’m done. So I’m sitting there thinking ‘how did I get myself in this pickle?’” Gallison remembers, laughing.

“I thought ‘If this thing takes off of this sandbar, what am I going to do? Am I going with it? Am I getting off? I have to watch the tail because I don’t want to get hit. So it moves and rolls and (I knew I just had to) get off this thing so I just let myself float off, and I got away from the tail. It all worked out OK.”


Fast facts

The Marine Animal Response Society (MARS) is a charitable organization dedicated to marine mammal conservation in the Maritime Provinces through education, research and rescue. In order to learn about the marine mammals that use local waters, the society relies on volunteers, institutions, government agencies and industry to help document all incidents of live and dead marine mammals in the Maritime Provinces.

For more information, visit www.marineanimals.ca.

To report a stranded, injured or dead marine mammal, call MARS at 1-866-567-6277 or Chuck Gallison at 902-368-5275.