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Following Whales Up a Creek

Following Whales Up a Creek

A conversation with marine mammal biologist Michael Moore


Michael Moore is accustomed to working solo (or nearly so) in remote places, but this was a very public endeavor. The WHOI marine mammal biologist and veterinarian flew across the country on short notice in May to join a large-scale attempt to rescue two humpback whales that went slightly astray from their migration route north in the Pacific Ocean.

The whales, mother and calf, were “up a creek,” so to speak, for two weeks—they swam 90 miles inland in the Sacramento River Delta, through three bays and past five bridges—and had wounds, likely from an encounter with a vessel.

A highly orchestrated effort ensued, involving scientists, federal and state agencies, private foundations, politicians, and a great deal of public and media interest. “The world was watching,” Moore said.

Moore helped the team accomplish the first successful administration of antibiotics to free-swimming whales, using a new drug delivery device he has been developing with colleagues. This conversation took place just after his return.

This story had a lot of attention from West Coast media, didn’t it?

From global press, actually. It’s a story about the whales (nicknamed “Delta” and “Dawn”), but also about the impact it had on local players—including vessel operators, ferries, etc.

We saw behaviors we didn’t know they could do.

The whales?

No, the ships.

We saw a tanker  slow to four knots and creep up the edge of a shipping channel. The lead veterinarian in charge was Frances Gulland, from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California—she and I went to veterinary school together. And at one point, she said they were about to create a “humpback sandwich”—with the channel bank on one side and the tanker taking up the center of the channel.  Suddenly, with the world watching, the tanker—an immense mass under way—dropped anchor and stopped.

In the global spotlight, they avoided lethal interaction with a large whale.

Could you describe your involvement with this rescue, and the new technology that was used?

I became involved because of the technology, in a way.

From my perspective it all started years ago, with right whale 2030, an entangled whale in the Bay of Fundy, and our efforts to catch it by the tail, untangle it, and give it antibiotics. I had previously designed a long pole mechanism for measuring a whale’s blubber thickness. Using it as a starting point, WHOI colleagues Terry Hammar, Craig Taylor, and I built a prototype syringe-based medicine-delivery system for the long pole.

In the end we never used it. But it sparked the question: Where and when is an appropriate opportunity for medical intervention in large whales at sea?

To answer that question, I hosted a series of workshops at WHOI with whale specialists, with support from the Cecil H. and Ida F. Green Technology Innovation Fund and NOAA: The initial conclusion was that dosing whales with antibiotics at sea was impractical, because it was unlikely you’d be able to give multiple doses. The whales could swim away and you wouldn’t find them again. But in 2001 a group did use a long pole syringe to give sedatives to Churchill, another badly entangled whale that later died of is injuries.

Technically, the delivery system worked—progress was made.

What happened next?

Then the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hired Jamison Smith at the National Marine Fisheries Services Northeast Regional Office in Gloucester, Mass., as Large Whale Disentanglement Coordinator. He is key to this story, because he, along with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, decided that we needed a better delivery system for the drugs.


With a pole and syringe the researcher drives close to the whale in a small boat, and uses the pole to contact and inject the whale: There’s always the risk of attaching the whale to the boat, if the syringe does not detach properly (and the risk the whale will dive or bolt.) So we decided to go with a ballistic system—a gun—which allows the researcher to be further away.

With NOAA funding, we worked with a New Zealand company, Paxarms, to develop a better propulsion syringe for whales. Serendipitously, Paxarms CEO Trevor Austin showed up on Cape Cod to test the system, just two months before we needed it for the Sacramento whales, so we had all the components.

How were you involved in the rescue?

By the time I got involved, the whales had been in the Sacramento River Delta for two weeks. They had got as far as the Sacramento boat turning basin, 90 miles inland, before backtracking 40 miles downriver. They had deep gashes on their bodies, probably from encounters with vessels, and were in poor condition.

Rescuers were on kind of a deathwatch in the delta. They didn’t know if they would need antibiotics or a euthanasia solution for the whales. The pole system delivered a liter, the right size for euthanasia, but a smaller volume is used for antibiotics, so they would need the ballistic device.

It went back and forth. Which one would they use?…
Then I got a call (from Jamison): Can you send out the pole and large syringe?…
The next day, another call (from the Marine Mammal Center): “Can you send yourself, as well, to operate the pole?…
And only Jamison and I  were familiar with the gun.

So I shipped out the pole and syringe. Try shipping a 124-inch long package! The flight I was on couldn’t take it. It was Thursday of Memorial Day weekend, and FedEx could get it there by Tuesday, but we needed it in California on Saturday. We were stuck.

Then Deb Snurkowski, of the WHOI shipping department, somehow got an independent shipper (Pilot Air in Boston) to take the pole. It was marvelous, she got it there by Saturday morning. She was remarkable.

How was the rescue effort conducted?

It’s a crowded waterway. San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River Delta are full of shipping traffic. People lined the river banks, watching the whales, and there were news helicopters overhead every day. There was interest around the world, so NOAA—the U.S. Government agency responsible for managing marine mammals—set up e-mail and phone accounts for people to leave messages or call, and received more than 2,500 calls in short order.

Taking the lead in the rescue were the local stranding response network, from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, on San Francisco Bay. NOAA was there, and the Lieutenant Governor of California activated the state’s Emergency Management Office. Huge state and federal resources became available, and they implemented an Incident Command System—a formal event management protocol, with vertical and horizontal integration of information. Things happened efficiently, quickly, and safely

And for those of us used to working alone or in small groups, in rough or hazardous conditions, it was frustrating to have so many regulations. Emergency personnel would say, “It’s dusk; you have to get off the water now!”  Haven’t they heard of navigation lights? But it was San Francisco Bay, after all, with lots of boat traffic. It was really very sweet, in some ways…..

What happened then?

The whales were now stuck above the Rio Vista Bridge, in pure fresh water.

So basically I show up on Saturday and assist in the delivery of antibiotics, which were donated by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Some of today’s antibiotics are an adequate treatment in a singe dose, in contrast to when we first started this work. The indications-to-use were very strong: The whales were deteriorating; in fresh water, their wounds were breaking down.

Whales evolved in a salt water environment. In fresh water their skin fluid balance and kidney function deteriorate. They have not evolved to deal with the bacterial load in fresh water, so they are more susceptible to infection.

Jamison is a trained hunter, so he did the shooting. It was my job to use a range finder and work with Jamison in deciding when to shoot.

So I had, so to speak, three arrows in my quiver: I had the long pole and could use it. I could drive a boat on a whale. And I was experienced with darting. We were in a small, non-federal boat loaned to us by John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research.

How did the propulsion injection device work?

It worked as expected, and the whales were injected with antibiotics. The stiffened needles took time to drop out, hours to days, as expected. Remember, we had tested the device, but hadn’t yet used it in a real situation; this was the test case. We achieved a first—the first delivery of antibiotics to a free-ranging large whale. But we didn’t know immediately whether they would have any effect. We had to wait.

Sunday afternoon we tried doing what we called “doughnuts”—spinning the boats in circles in a line across the river, making a ‘noise wall’ across the river with the boat motors, to drive the whales downstream.

From there on, it was a saga of the whales leapfrogging down the river —when they felt like it.

One of the most sublime moments was later that afternoon, they were near Antioch. It’s a windy area, and there were lots of windsurfers out. The calf was being quite frisky, quite acrobatic, and there’s a photo of the windsurfers and the calf breaching.

How did the whales’ return trip unfold?

Monday, the whales were in Benicia, where we left them in the evening –  “It’s dusk, get off the water.” We saw that their wounds were improving by then.

On Tuesday, they went through the Carquinez Bridge. They fumbled their way down the south side of the ship channel in San Pablo Bay, and with the ebb tide in their direction they were making a good 5 to 6 knots.

It was windy. There was a flotilla of boats—California Fish and Game, Fish and Wildlife, Coast Guard vessels. There we were in a small boat, dodging the larger vessels on a windy day, about to get forced down onto the bridge stanchions, right under the Richmond Bridge. And we were right near the whales.

Then they swam right through under the Richmond Bridge into San Francisco Bay. People worried about them being stopped by the bridge abutments, and the noise from the car traffic, and the boat traffic. We don’t know why they were not stuck there, but they weren’t.

Suddenly, they were off Tiburon, near the entrance to San Francisco Bay. There were crowds, six news helicopters and a bunch of boats. At sunset Tuesday night, officials held a news conference at Golden Gate Bridge to say, “The whales are coming”—and then they didn’t come. We said, “We can’t leave,” but it was dusk.

I had to leave for a Wednesday morning flight. There I was, driving across the Richmond Bridge, looking around for the boats, crowds, and helicopters—which would show where the whales were. And I heard on the radio, ”They can’t find the whales this morning.” So I knew before I left that the animals had made it out of the Bay.

What would you say was the biggest success?

The big success is that the whales took care of themselves! We have a poor understanding of what drove them to start and stop swimming. Would there have been a materially different outcome without help from humans? We’ll never know.

Ultimately, most marine mammal intervention is driven by people’s expectations, which are different in different parts of the country and the world. We live in the age of managed ecosystem: Since people live near the marine mammals, we have to manage them—seals on public beaches, for example.

The issue of what’s appropriate to do with mammals is hugely difficult. We have to take a hard look at the risks and benefits of rehabilitation and release, and the real political pressure we’re all under, including the shipping industry. The cost of being the bad guy is huge.

Moore, Gulland, and colleagues review this subject in an upcoming issue of the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Paxarms: peaceful company, vital tools

Paxarms is a New Zealand company that designs ways to deliver medicines
to and take tissue samples from animals including whales, seals,
dolphins, walrus, and sharks.  Owners Trevor and Penny Austin
specialize in marine species and work with researchers all over the
world. Trevor,
an engineer by
training, has developed net guns, syringe poles, and darts that take
tissue samples from animals at a distance. “Taking tissue samples from
marine mammals is a worldwide exercise, with the information being
recorded in databases that will give us
valuable information for the future such as DNA matching, genetic,
breeding, food sources, and the very latest is a move towards
toxicology,” said Penny Austin. The company has
operated for 50 years; its founder, Colin
Murdoch (not with the company for the last 35 years), invented both the tranquilizer gun used for large animals, and
the disposable syringe, an essential tool of modern medicine used all
over the world every day by doctors, nurses, and patients. The
Austins purchased the business more than 20 years ago, seeing an
opportunity for technical input to make the work more scientific in
nature, said Penny
Austin. Moore
recalls how bizarre it was to be “doing a live interview via cellphone
with a New Zealand television station about Austin’s involvement in the
project, whilst working with the two humpbacks in shallow water off
Tiburon, all the while being watched by six news helicopters.”

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