Aquarium intern assists in rehabilitation of stranded false killer whale calf

Sarah WahlstromSeattle Aquarium summer veterinary intern Sarah Wahlstrom, who is about to enter her second year of veterinary school at Ohio State University, recently had the experience of a lifetime when she assisted with the rehabilitation of a stranded false killer whale calf at the Vancouver Aquarium’s marine mammal rescue center. Below, she shares her thoughts about her passion for marine life, her work at the Aquarium, and what it was like to help that stranded calf.




Q:  How long have you been fascinated by marine animals?

A: I’ve been interested in all the creatures who inhabit our oceans since I can remember. I’m especially drawn to them since we know so little about the oceans in general. My parents obliged me by taking me whale watching, to every aquarium in our family travels and gave me my own tropical freshwater fish tank when I was 7 years old. They were very supportive and at one time I had five aquariums set up in the house, ranging from five to 55 gallons, filled with fresh water, brackish water and saltwater. I really feel passionate about animals who aren’t as charismatic and loved by the general populace—like invertebrates and elasmobranchs, commonly referred to as sharks and rays.

Q: What’s your Aquarium internship experience been like?

A: It’s been amazing! I must say I’m probably the luckiest vet student intern! The best thing about the Seattle Aquarium has been the people. I’ve been so impressed with how the staff work together as a team and how welcoming they have been to me. Everyone has been so gracious in answering my many questions, especially the Aquarium’s staff veterinarian, and my supervisor, Dr. Lahner. I have learned so much about aquarium husbandry and medicine; in vet school we only learn about domestic species in our core courses so you really have to find a way to learn outside of school. My most memorable moments have been sea otter procedures, attending the Sea Star Wasting Disease Symposium in Newport, OR, and of course spending some time with a false killer whale calf!

Q: What is a “false killer whale” and how did the calf come to be at the Vancouver Aquarium’s marine mammal rescue center?

A: False killer whales are actually not whales like their name suggests; they’re the third-largest species of dolphin behind orcas and pilot whales. This calf stranded on Vancouver Island. No one knows why or how he was separated from his mother or even why a species that is usually seen in much warmer water was this far north. The Vancouver Aquarium runs the marine mammal rescue center off-site and this lucky calf stranded near the only facility in Canada that could rehabilitate him.

Q: How did it happen that you went to Vancouver to help?

A: Since the field of aquarium medicine is so small, the vets are always in contact. When Dr. Lahner learned about the calf, she knew it would be a great learning opportunity for me and sent some emails to see if I could be of any help. I definitely didn’t expect that I would be in the water with the calf—it was an honor just to go support that team!

Q: What was the experience like and what did you learn from it?

A: It was unbelievable, definitely something that I will remember and cherish for life. It’s hard to describe how amazing spending time that close to an intelligent and rare animal is. Being from western New York State and now living in central Ohio, I don’t have any experience with cetaceans—commonly referred to as whales and dolphins. It was great to learn from an experienced team who does hundreds of rescues of marine mammals every year. They were patient in explaining the basics to me on how to hold him, what to look for, and how to help them when they needed to feed him. At the time he was unable to hold himself up and needed someone to support him 24/7. I understand that now he’s improving and growing stronger by leaps and bounds! Since this is a very rare stranding, everyone is learning a lot from this calf. We don’t know very much about them as adults, much less juveniles.

Q: What’s next in your future? What do you hope to be doing in 10 years?

A: I still have three more years of veterinary school left; to be a vet requires a four-year bachelor’s degree followed by four more years of veterinary school. After I graduate in 2017, I will most likely do two one-year internships and a three-year residency with the goal of becoming a board certified zoo veterinarian. There are many ways to become a zoo and aquarium vet but I think that’s the best path for me right now—however, I’m open to change! After the extra training, I’ll be looking for full-time employment in the field. It’s very competitive but it’s what I love and I’m determined to do it!

Thanks to Sarah for taking time to answer our questions and sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm with us—and the Vancouver Aquarium—this summer!

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Latest developments on Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD)

The Seattle Aquarium’s work on Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) was recently featured in a segment on KING 5 News. Dr. Lesanna Lahner, staff veterinarian, is treating a group of sea stars showing signs of the disease with antibiotics to see if the medication helps the animals fight it off. The segment also received coverage on NBC’s national news.

Since the end of October 2013, when SSWD first began to appear in our local waters, the Seattle Aquarium has been actively collaborating with a variety of institutions—including the Vancouver Aquarium, SeaDoc Society, Cornell University, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the USGS National Wildlife Health Center—to respond to the ongoing unusual mortality event occurring in sea stars along the West Coast. The cause of the disease has yet to be determined.

For details on our work on this issue to date, please see our previous blog posts:

The Seattle Times also published an article in June that features the Seattle Aquarium and further describes the disease and its current and potential impacts in our local waters and elsewhere.

A recent update provided by Dr. Lahner inspired a thoughtful donor to make a significant gift toward the next stage of research on the disease. Click here to contribute to our efforts to further understanding of this disease and its cause.

Interested in learning about the disease in person? Visit the Seattle Aquarium (where all affected sea star species have been removed from our exhibits) and speak to one of our interpreters; or talk to one of our volunteer Beach Naturalists this weekend—they’ll be stationed at a number of our local beaches. Click here for a schedule, locations and directions.

Looking for other ways to make a difference?

Research on SSWD is just one of the Seattle Aquarium’s many research efforts. For information about our other projects, read our most recent research annual report, or visit the research page on our website.

Follow us on Twitter for more updates on SSWD as they emerge. We’ll also continue to update our blog and social media with details about the efforts to determine the cause of the disease.

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Welcome puffin baby #2!

Baby tufted puffin at the Seattle Aquarium

It’s official…the second tufted puffin chick has hatched! Seattle Aquarium staff team continue to monitor both chicks and their parents very closely during this critical time.

Fun facts: Puffin babies are covered in fluffy, down feathers and eat whole fish brought into the burrow by their parents. Parents do not regurgitate the food, but rather collect several fish in their bills to feed their chicks.

Click here to read the blog post about the tufted puffin chick that hatched last week! And check out our fact sheet to learn more about the amazing tufted puffins.

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A new tufted puffin chick at the Seattle Aquarium!

Baby tufted puffin at the Seattle Aquarium

We are delighted to welcome a new tufted puffin chick to the Seattle Aquarium! The chick hatched late last week and, along with its parents, is being closely monitored by Seattle Aquarium biologists. As of this writing, the chick appears to be healthy and receiving the appropriate level of parental care. While this is a critical time for any newly hatched chick, we remain cautiously optimistic.

The chick will remain out of view in its burrow, being cared for by its parents, until it fledges sometime in August. Stay tuned for more updates on this chick—and watch for news of an anticipated second chick, expected anytime!

Check out our fact sheet to learn more about the fabulous tufted puffins.

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Creature feature: the male mouth-brooding Banggai cardinalfish


What does “male mouth-brooding” mean exactly? That the male carries the eggs—in his mouth! That’s an interesting characteristic of all cardinalfish.

Banggai cardinalfish, Pterapogon kauderni, belong to the Family Apogonidae (Cardinalfish). They’re named for the area in which they’re native, the waters off the Banggai Islands in central Indonesia, and are currently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Now, back to that mouth brooding! Banggai cardinalfish reproduction begins when the female courts the male with a dance. She then releases about 40 eggs—which are all connected by filaments and referred to as a clutch—from her body and into the water, where they are fertilized by the male. Within seconds, he sucks up all the eggs into his mouth!

And in his mouth the eggs remain for about a month. During this incubation period, it’s believed that the male Banggai cardinalfish doesn’t eat. Some scientists think the male may swallow some of the eggs—by accident or design—as a way of getting some nourishment. Banggai cardinalfish in general aren’t very active, which is probably key in the male’s ability to go for such a long period without food.

Once the incubation period is complete, the babies swim out of the male’s mouth—each a tiny replica of an adult Banggai cardinalfish. Out of the average 40 eggs in a clutch, about 20 babies are born.

Come to the Pacific Coral Reef exhibit at the Seattle Aquarium to see Banggai cardinalfish in person!

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