07/11/2014 12:50 EDT | Updated 09/09/2014 05:59 EDT

False Killer Whale, Rarely Seen In B.C., Washes Ashore In Distress

VANCOUVER - Staff at Vancouver Aquarium are working around the clock to try and save a rare cetacean known as a "false killer whale" that was found stranded on a British Columbia beach.

The whale, which is actually a member of the dolphin family, was in critical condition Friday at the aquarium's Marine Mammal Research Centre in Vancouver.

The animal was reported to the aquarium on Thursday morning and within an hour, a team was en route to the beach near Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, said Martin Haulena, the aquarium's head veterinarian.

The male calf is between four and six weeks old.

"This is a male, dependent calf. He'd normally be with his mother," Haulena said.

"He is under weight. He cannot swim on his own. That's very, very typical for stranded cetaceans. We often have to support them 24 hours a day in our pools for six to eight weeks, so it is a very intensive 24-hour care."

Story continues after slideshow:

Photo gallery False Killer Whale In Distress, Tofino/Vancouver See Gallery

The calf is in poor condition, suffering from lacerations and wounds from lying out of water on the beach. Being out of the water puts pressure on lungs and other organs, and transport puts more stress on the animal, he said.

There were ups and downs overnight and it is suffering respiratory problems. The calf had started drinking sea water — a bad sign for stranded animals, Haulena said.

A member of the aquarium staff was in a circular pool Friday, walking to circulate the animal through the water in a hand-held sling.

A team of two dozen is involved in its care, which includes feeding it formula through a tube every two hours and treatment with antibiotics and steroids.

"It's basically hour by hour and playing it by ear, and a lot of monitoring going on," said Lindsaye Akhurst, manager of the rescue centre.

"He's still in critical condition so the next 24 hours, of course, are really important. He's still in really rough shape."

The odds of survival are about 10 per cent, she said.

Considered a tropical or sub-tropical species, Pseudorca crassidens are known to exist in the open ocean off the west coast of Canada. Sightings, however, are rare.

Very few marine biologists or veterinarians have experience with the unique mammals and calls have already come in from all over the world for the aquarium team to take photos and document details of the species.

The location of the calf's mother is unknown and it may never return to the wild, Haulena said.

"Cetaceans that strand at a time when they normally would be with their mothers, that haven't had a chance to learn predation avoidance skills, those animals are typically considered non-releasable but that is a Department of Fisheries and Oceans decision," he said.

The aquarium has no other false killer whales, he said. Several institutions around North America have already contacted the aquarium to offer permanent care.

Vancouver Aquarium has come under criticism for keeping two beluga whales, two porpoises and two dolphins in captivity in the wake of a popular documentary on SeaWorld Park in San Diego, but Haulena was on the defensive.

"There is no other facility anywhere in Canada that a stranded cetacean can be brought to," he said. "The only reason we are here is because we've got people who visit Vancouver Aquarium."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story quoted Dr. Martin Haulena as saying a baby false killer whale hadn't yet had time to learn foraging predation and innovation skills. In fact, Haulena said the whale hadn't yet learned predation avoidance skills.