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A whale of a detective case

- August 13, 2014

Galaxina Renaud and the beached fin whale. (Provided photo)
Galaxina Renaud and the beached fin whale. (Provided photo)

It’s not every day that Marine Biology research seems akin to detective work — but for student Galaxina Renaud, the opportunity to help determine the cause of death for a beached whale was like CSI: Atlantic Ocean.

The male fin whale, beached near the Canso Causeway that connects mainland Nova Scotia to Cape Breton Island, generated headlines across the region last month. Galaxina was approached by Andrew Reid, response coordinator with the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), to observe the whale. Without hesitation she accepted, knowing this would be a great learning experience and a valuable, practical way to observe in person the material she’d read in her textbooks.

“It’s one thing to read a book about something; it’s a completely other thing to put that knowledge to practical use,” says Galaxina, heading into the fifth and final year of her degree.

Growing up to 90 feet, the fin whale is the second largest animal in the world, exhibiting distinct physical qualities that separate them from their oceanic counterparts. It’s also a species of concern in our region — which is one reason why MARS called in assistance to determine the whale’s cause of death.

"If it is a human cause that information can go towards developing conservation methods so they don't become endangered,” said Reid, speaking with the Cape Breton post.

Observing the evidence with the experts

Galaxina has always had a passion for marine animals. During her time as a teaching assistant, and as part of the Dalhousie Association of Marine Biology Students (DAMS), she discovered the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), an organization whose mission is to work toward protecting large marine mammals through rescue, education, and research. As part of that mission, the organization responds to mammals that have been beached or caught accidentally.

Dressed in all rubber attire, and armed with her Bic pen and notebook for taking observations, Galaxina was ready to try and figure out what happened to the creature. With MARS staff by her side, she probed the 14-metre fin whale that lay lifeless near the causeway.

The society’s work startswith rudimentary evaluations: observing anatomy, abrasions and possible signs of cause of death, either natural or involving human interaction. Galaxina’s detective work began with inductive observation. First, she observed the large mammal for evidence of blunt trauma, which would have suggested it being hit or struck. But there were no external cuts or blood within the blubber. Next, she looked for markings from rope, which would suggest entanglement; again, nothing. Finally, Galaxina helped measure the thickness of the whale’s blubber, and noticed it was slightly thin.

“The most surprising thing was that the whale was young, probably only about 2-3, as it was only 55 feet long and these animals grow to be around 80-90 feet long,” she explains. “It did not seem to have any external damage or visible trauma upon tissue samples.”

A way to species conservation  

In examining the whale, Galaxina was applying what she learned in Dalhousie’s Summer Education & Applied Science Institute at Dalhousie in Ecology (or "S.E.A.S.I.D.E") program.

“Part of the program's Field Studies of Marine Mammals course also included performing a necropsy on a marine mammal,” she explains. “You learn how to examine the animal externally, what you need to look for and are guided in a necropsy, applying the same examination skills to the internal area as well.”

As for this particular fin whale, the cause of its sad fate still remains unknown, but MARS will be making good use of the evidence collected by Galaxina and other volunteers and researchers who visited the site.

“We would like to do a full necropsy to see it there are any broken bones that could indicate a ship strike or any other damage or sickness in its organs”, says MARS' Reid.

After the inspection was complete, the Department of Natural Resources took the lead and removed the 50-foot whale from the water, three weeks after she had met her demise.

“The process it takes to move a large animal is very expensive and has to be thought out,” explains Galaxina. “Once the necropsy is done you cannot just leave it there to rot. You have to consider other people in the areas that may smell it, or the animals nearby that may try to eat it. There is big machinery that is needed as well to assist in taking off the blubber to examine the internal areas of the whale. Costs add up quickly when the animal is larger.”     

She was thankful for the opportunity to work with MARS over the past couple of years: “It is a great organization that really tries hard to involve those who want to learn more.”

In the future, Galaxina plans to work in marine animal rehabilitation, helping save ocean creatures from fates such as that of this particular fin whale.


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