Rescue Mission in Huanchaco!

Following the excitement and media attention of “Cayetano”, the Southern Elephant Seal, our phone was ringing daily with new sea lion sightings. Unfortunately, most of these sightings were either terminal or too far away from the clinic. One day, we received a call that stood out from the rest. A veterinarian in Huanchaco by the name of Dr. Selene Diaz was calling to inform us that she had spotted what she thought to be a small sea lion on the beach. After closer inspection from the photos she sent us, it was apparent to Dr. Yaipén-Llanos that it was a juvenile male Galapagos Fur Seal clearly dehydrated and far from home. Due to his low energy levels, Dr. Diaz was able to restrain him with a towel and bring him in to her clinic where he could rest and recover away from curious beach-goers. Since Lima is about 9 hours south of Huanchaco and the fur seal was in no shape to make the long journey, the best option was for Dr. Yaipén-Llanos and I to go to him. Dr. Yaipén-Llanos advised Dr. Diaz to give the seal subcutaneous fluids and keep him in isolation until we arrived in Huanchaco. With that, we quickly packed our bags with medical supplies, paperwork and rescue equipment, and hopped on an overnight bus heading north!

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The next morning, we arrived at Dr. Diaz´s veterinary clinic and immediately got to work. The three of us worked together to restrain the fur seal (who Dr. Diaz had affectionately named Patrizio), take measurements, withdraw blood, take a distemper test, and administer antibiotic injections. Patrizio looked more alert and hydrated compared to the initial photos and things were looking good for him to be released later that day.

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As we were finishing up Patrizio´s treatment, Dr. Yaipén-Llanos received a call about an adult female sea lion in distress on the docks nearby… never a dull moment in wildlife rescue! We left Patrizio to rest for a few hours and we rushed over to the beach to assess the new rescue situation. We arrived at the scene as fast as we could but the sea lion had already drawn a big crowd of tourists, locals, and reporters. The local police had gotten there before us and were attempting to handle the situation but they had no previous experience nor appropriate training – understandably, sea lion rescue isn’t part of the curriculum in police academy! We knew we had to work fast before the situation got out of hand and the best way to accomplish that was through team work. We worked together with the police, they restrained her while we performed the medical procedures. From a visual examination, we could tell that she was disoriented but not emaciated. The most concerning thing was that she seemed to have absolutely no vision in both her eyes. This could be due to shock, trauma or ocean pollution.

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Since she showed no signs of disease or sickness other than loss of vision, after doing blood withdrawals and administering antibiotic injections, Dr. Yaipén-Llanos used a rescue board to encourage her back into the water. Even without sight, once the water touches their flippers, marine mammals are naturally able to navigate their way in the ocean, using the current as their guide. As predicted, once the sea lion entered the water, she oriented herself appropriately and swam further away from the shore. While the crowd was still gathered around us to Dr. Yaipén-Llanos took the opportunity to educate them on pollution and how it harms the animals that live in the ocean. Public rescues are not only great in terms of saving the lives of stranded marine animals, but they are also great ways to educate the public about what they can do to help prevent future strandings.

As we were packing up our equipment, the police approached us and asked Dr. Yaipén-Llanos for a workshop on marine mammal rescue. Dr. Yaipén-Llanos happily agreed and gave a workshop there on the spot! Since ORCA is the only marine rescue organization in Peru, it is vital to have law enforcement on our side, trained, and ready to help in different locations along the Peruvian coast. The police in Huanchaco seemed genuinely interested in the work we were doing and wanted to help more – they even offered to help us transport and escort Patrizio for his rescue in the evening!

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Back at the clinic: Patrizio was looking even brighter and more alert than ever before. As he had passed his assessment, he was deemed ready to be released. Unlike his first restraining with Dr. Diaz, Patrizio was feisty when we restrained him this time (a sign that he was feeling better and had more energy!). We tagged him with a yellow ORCA tag and set him up in a kennel I the back of the police truck.

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The police drove us to an isolated beach a few minutes away from the beach and helped us carry the kennel close to the water. It was clear that Patrizio was eager to escape the kennel and we too, were excited to see him return home. We opened the kennel door and waited as he stared back at us in disbelief for a moment before he made a dash (more like a hobble) for the water! He was so excited that, as soon as the tide hit his flippers, he dove right into the sand! After his minor stumble, he got back up and carried on his way. We admired as he spent a few minutes near the shore bathing himself (getting rid of the human smell). It wasn’t long before he swam out of our sight, into the open ocean. Another exciting and successful rescue!

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During my month at ORCA I have learned so much about marine mammal rescue and now have a deeper appreciation and respect for the work that Dr. Yaipén-Llanos and the ORCA team do daily. Through their passion and hard work, ORCA educates and inspires the people in Peru to become friends of the ocean and their message saves hundreds of marine animals each year. I am leaving Peru with new insight and inspiration to continue pursuing a career in wildlife medicine and am excited to be a positive contributor in marine conservation!

Written by Samantha Lam, ORCA Intern from Canada, Summer, March-April 2016.

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