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The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, with assistance from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and other agencies, rescued a young false killer whale from a beach near Tofino on Thursday afternoon.

Neil Fisher

A rare false killer whale calf that washed ashore near Tofino is being rehabilitated at a Vancouver rescue centre.

But while the young cetacean has survived the first 24 hours after its rescue – a crucial milestone – veterinarians at the Vancouver Aquarium's Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (MMR) say its recovery is touch and go.

Government agencies doing unrelated work discovered the false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens) stranded on North Chesterman Beach around 11 a.m. on Thursday, said Martin Haulena, the aquarium's head veterinarian. Working with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and other agencies, a team from the MMR mobilized by noon and arrived on scene around 3 p.m.

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The male calf, estimated to be between four and six weeks old, was malnourished and had lacerations from being stranded. It could not swim on its own.

Veterinarians stabilized the calf and took it to the Vancouver rescue centre on Thursday night. On Friday, a veterinary technician helped the calf, which lay in a floating sling, do slow laps around a small holding tank. At least one veterinarian or veterinary technician will remain by its side 24 hours a day for six to eight weeks, Dr. Haulena said.

"There are some good things. It's been vocalizing, and taking its formula and keeping it down. His respirations are quite good," Dr. Haulena said. "Those are good signs, but it can't swim on its own, needs to be tube fed and needs a lot of supportive care. It's a critical animal in critical condition."

Even if the calf does fully recover, it is unlikely it could survive in the wild without its mother, Dr. Haulena said.

The false killer whale is a member of the dolphin family, distinct from the more commonly known killer whale, the orca. The rescued calf is two metres long – they grow to about five metres – and was initially mistaken for a harbour porpoise. The false killer whale is found in tropics in all oceans of the world, but spotted in B.C. waters only occasionally, according to the aquarium.

MMR manager Lindsaye Akhurst said this is the first false killer whale the Vancouver Aquarium has ever rehabilitated.

"This is a species that's not really known, especially in these waters," she said. "They have been seen, but for us to be able to rescue one, and hopefully be a part of this whole process, is really huge. We're definitely learning a lot more about this species."

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In recent months, protesters have targeted the aquarium, demanding an end to keeping whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity. At protests and through online petitions, they argued it is cruel to confine such highly intelligent and social marine mammals to small spaces. The debate resurfaced in April, with some Vancouver Park Board commissioners and Mayor Gregor Robertson voicing opposition to the practice.

The aquarium has defended itself by pointing out it has not captured a cetacean from the wild for display since 1990 – and is the first aquarium in the world to make a commitment not to do so. Instead, it keeps only cetaceans that were born in the aquarium, or were rescued and deemed non-releasable by a government authority. The aquarium has also had a robust research program for nearly 60 years.

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