POLITICS

Rescued whale, dolphin to be roommates at Vancouver Aquarium

05/26/2015 03:14 EDT | Updated 05/26/2016 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - A baby false killer whale found battered and stranded on a Tofino, B.C., beach last summer will stay at the Vancouver Aquarium after a panel of marine experts determined he cannot be safely released back into the wild.

The whale, named Chester by aquarium staff, has been rehabilitated at the facility since being rescued in July 2014.

"Chester looks amazing. His blood looks great, his physical exams are great," said Dr. Martin Haulena, the aquarium's head veterinarian. "Our assumption is that he's fantastic, but with these guys, especially animals that have a history of stranding, there are all sorts of things that can go on. So we'll be watching him closely."

Fisheries and Oceans Canada organized a panel to determine Chester's future after he became the first false killer whale to ever be successfully rescued in Canada. The whales get their name because they resemble the orca, they are a member of the dolphin family and ply the waters around North American and Australia.

Based on the whale's age, lack of survival and foraging skills, and extensive contact with humans, releasing him back into the wild wouldn't be safe, said Paul Cottrell, marine mammal co-ordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The panel recommended Chester be placed in a captive environment with other false killer whales, but there are no such whales living in captivity in North America.

Instead, Chester will stay at the aquarium with a seemingly peculiar roommate — a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen.

In the wild, false killer whales are known to eat marine mammals, including dolphins.

Some of the 15-to-17 false killer whales living in captivity in other parts of the world successfully live with dolphins, and aquarium staff are expecting Chester and Helen to get along well, said Clint Wright, the aquarium's general manager.

"Hopefully, within a few weeks, we'll have these two animals together," he said. "It'll be the start of a new adventure for him. And, as it turns out, it's actually great for Helen, too."

Back-up plans such as switching habitats or moving animals are in the works, just in case the two don't get along.

The arrangement will allow both animals some much-needed socialization, after Helen's previous companion — a dolphin named Hana — died earlier this week.

Haulena said Chester will likely join Helen in performing for visitors daily, with trainers coaxing the animals to leap out of the water and twirl their sleek bodies on command.

Both dolphins and whales are social animals who live in groups or pods in the wild, and while Wright said there are no plans right now to bring in another flippered friend for Chester and Helen, he didn't rule out another animal joining them in the future.

"If there's an animal that needs to be rescued, we can obviously take them on and give them a long-term home," he said. "That's kind of how we see ourselves going forward — a long-term home for animals that cannot make their way back into the wild."

Wright acknowledged that there are people who are against keeping whales in captivity.

"There's a certain segment of the population that would like to see these animals euthanized on the beach. That's not our belief," he said. "We believe these animals do deserve a chance."