The 1-877-7baleine call centre team frequently says that their work often resembles that of a detective! When a mammal is seen beached or adrift, it is not always easy for a novice to determine what species it is. Moreover, it sometimes becomes difficult to determine whether the animal is alive or dead. The Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network is 10 years old and there are many funny stories about erroneous identifications of species, or even places.
Park wardens have already been dispatched to the Saint-Siméon wharf in Charlevoix to assess a large dead rorqual, while the stranded carcass was actually found on the shores of Saint-Siméon…in the Gaspé Peninsula. A specialist in beluga sampling once travelled on a fall day prepared to study a young animal of this species, only to finally find himself face to face with a sturgeon. A Marine Mammals Emergencies volunteer also travelled along the shores of the river in the Québec City region, expecting to analyze a seal carcass, only to discover that it was a beaver! In another instance, a white carcass believed to be a beluga beached on the tidal flats of the Bas-Saint-Laurent region proved to be that of a deer. Lastly, on October 9, citizens recovered in a bag a beached marine mammal they believed to be a newborn beluga: uniform colour, smooth body with no dorsal fin and a small, rounded head. Indeed, the description corresponded to that of a beluga, but once the photos were received, it was confirmed that it was actually a young harbour seal!
Interventions by species and case
Depending on the species and case type, a variety of interventions might be undertaken by Network partners: towing, sampling, flensing, necropsy, disentanglement, follow-up of the situation, etc. This is why a host of questions must be asked to the witnesses in the first few minutes of the phone call. Questions can sometimes seem simplistic: presence of scales, fur or smooth skin to distinguish a fish from a seal or a cetacean. Orientation of the tail to distinguish a whale from a fish. Presence of teeth or baleen to identify the group of cetaceans to which it belongs. Do they see the back of a motionless beluga or is it lying on its side, to distinguish an animal logging (at rest) from a dead or struggling beluga. Are there any scavengers nearby to suggest whether it is a carcass or an inert object? What is the animal’s colour pattern and approximate size? Is it injured? Does it bear any obvious signs of entanglement? All these questions are essential to gain an accurate picture of the situation and correspondingly develop an appropriate intervention plan.
The state of decomposition of some carcasses may also complicate identification. Questions about certain characteristics may help reach a conclusion, but very often a photo is worth a thousand words. The era of smart phones has greatly facilitated the work of the call centre. And, when doubt remains, we can turn to over one hundred volunteers throughout Quebec who travel to validate situations and provide answers to questions that remain.