Helping the stranded

Heather Killen
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Whale rescue group relies on volunteers to assist sea mammals in trouble

By Heather Killen

The Spectator


There is a 911 emergency line for marine animals that people can call if there is an unusual shape in the water, or a dead whale on the beach.

Lately it’s not as rare to see a whale, or even a wayward shark, along the shorelines; or to discover a dead animal on the beach and wonder whom to call. The Marine Animal Response Society (MARS) responds to reports of stranded seals, whales, dolphins, and porpoises in Nova Scotia and assists with cases in New Brunswick and PEI.

The group was recently profiled in a CBC Land & Sea documentary, ‘Whale Rescue’ that aired on January 20.  Tonya Wimmer, president, says that this Halifax-based organization is dedicated to conserving marine mammal species (whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seals) through rescue, education and research.

The society originally started as the Nova Scotia Stranding Network in the 1990s, a volunteer group that monitored and responded to strandings and entanglements. Wimmer said she was working as a graduate student when she first became involved with the group and later took over in 2000.



She says the group’s hotline now gets about 100 calls a year and is the main contact for all marine mammal emergencies. They receive calls ranging from beached or stranded whales, dead marine animals, and entangled whales.

Depending on the nature of the call, it may be referred to another organization, or handled internally with the help of local experts. In recent years MARS has been gathering information on rare whale sightings in the Annapolis River, and other unusual sightings of species not normally seen in the region.

Last year was an active one with unusual sightings reported in various spots along the Bay and Southwest coast notably a couple of sharks and a sea turtle, species that typically remain farther out to sea.

She added that it’s hard to tell if there is more marine activity, or whether people are reporting what they see more often. These sightings are called in after people notice something unusual while they are out for a walk on the beach.

“There have been a couple of whales in the Annapolis River over the last 10 years,” she said. “There was a minke a few years ago and of course, Sluice. Sluice was having a hey-day.”


As Far As Bridgetown

She added while most whales usually remain farther out to sea, from time to time, one makes its way up the Annapolis River to Bridgetown probably following the tides and the food. The most recent whale was spotted there during the last BASH a few years ago.

Before that a wayward whale appeared in the fall of 2007. This visiting minke put on a show for a few weeks. People lined the bridge and watched as the whale played in the river.  Some unsuccessful efforts were made to guide the whale out and it disappeared for a time. 

Unfortunately it was found dead the following spring, washed up at the nearby campground. Wimmer added this animal had unusual growths on its body and is a reminder that in some cases it’s kinder to allow nature to take its course.

“Not every animal can, or should be saved,” she said. “And we don’t interfere when it’s not in the animal’s best interest.”

Sometimes good-hearted people will see an animal they believe is in distress and try to help, but that’s not a good idea, she said. Relocating or moving marine animals is dangerous even for people who are trained in these situations.

“People’s hearts are in the right places and they want to help, “ she said. “But if you aren’t trained it’s not safe for people, or the animals.”


How To Help

There are many ways people can assist MARS ranging from providing the vital information needed to help experts assess the situation, to collecting samples from a dead animal, to determine what could have killed it.

She added that interested volunteers should know strandings and marine emergencies are sporadic. And in the beginning, volunteers will likely be asked to simply investigate an incident and report back.

It could start with photos, then if it seems the animal needs assistance, other departments are called such as staff from Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or Parks Canada. If the animal is active and swimming, it may just be a matter of simply watching it play.

“As long as the animal is happy, I’m happy,’ she said.

For more information on the Marine Animal Response Society, visit To report an unusual sighting, or emergency, call 1-866-567-6277 for stranded, injured, or dead marine animals.


Organizations: Marine Animal Response Society, Nova Scotia Stranding Network, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Parks Canada

Geographic location: Annapolis River, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick Bridgetown

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