2017-07-12

Whale rescuer hails from Mahone Bay

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Born and raised in Mahone Bay, Tonya Wimmer, director of the Marine Animal Rescue Society (MARS), regularly visits family and friends living in the town.</p>
  • <p>MARS PHOTO</p><p>Preliminary results on necropsies performed in P.E.I. of three North American right whales that died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are expected within a week or so.</p>
  • <p>MARS PHOTO</p><p>Vessel strikes and toxic algae are among the theories concerning the cause of death of six North American right whales found floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June, three of which were towed onto shore in western P.E.I. for investigation.</p>

A former resident of Mahone Bay helped spearhead efforts to determine what caused six North American right whales to die recently in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Marine biologist and director of the Marine Animal Rescue Society (MARS), Tonya Wimmer, assisted in coordinating a team responding to the mysterious deaths. The team included staff from the Department of Fisheries (DFO), the Canadian Coast Guard and a contingent of volunteers.

Born and raised in Mahone Bay and a graduate of Park View Education Centre, Wimmer started MARS, a charitable organization dedicated to the conservation of marine mammals, when she was doing her undergraduate degree in marine biology at the University of Dalhousie.

"There was one that existed before that. But it kind of went defunct. So I sort of grabbed it again and revitalized it, and here we are almost 20 years later," Wimmer told LighthouseNOW.

Wimmer and MARS jumped into action in June, when six North Atlantic right whales were discovered floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence between New Brunswick's Miscou Island, Quebec's Magdalen Islands and northern P.E.I.

A marine biologist at Dalhousie University, she was among the team that took a boat out to see the remains floating in the ocean.

Experts were at a loss to explain what may have killed the endangered whales, which are estimated to number 525.

Since they grow to about 15 metres and 40,000 to 70,000 kilograms, it is difficult to perform necropsies on the huge creatures at sea, so the Coast Guard towed three of them to shore in western P.E.I., where the procedures were conducted over the Canada Day weekend.

"This was a really massive undertaking in collaboration with so many organizations - from Canada, from the U.S., the federal government and the scientists," Wimmer told the CBC.

Collecting biological samples was critical to determining what caused the deaths and hopefully prevent further losses.

On July 3, MARS reported results of preliminary observations on Facebook.

"There is reasonable suggestion of blunt trauma in two of the animals, although underlying problems that may have predisposed these animals to this trauma cannot be ruled out at this stage. The third animal had a chronic entanglement."

A final report is expected in six to eight weeks.

Wimmer had explained to LighthouseNOW earlier that while the whales were found in the deeper channel that runs up to the St. Lawrence estuary, it was not known where the animals actually died and how much they had been drifting. She said part of the investigation into the cause of death includes wind and current studies.

"There is clearly work that needs to be done immediately to protect this species throughout its range in Canadian waters," MARS noted in its Facebook report.

The wildlife pathologist leading the investigation, Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust of the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown, told the CBC because of the decomposition of the bodies there are other potential causes of death that could be neither confirmed nor ruled out, including a shortage of plankton and toxic algae.

These theories bring bigger questions into play about the ecology of the ocean that need to be addressed, Daoust said.

On July 6, MARS reported that a right whale was found entangled in fishing gear a day earlier in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence but nearby research vessel disentangled the animal.

Read about the necropsy MARS recently performed on a Blue Whale in Queens County here.

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