Seattle 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!