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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 22, 2010

Hilo site to aid whales, dolphins

By Diana Leone
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Veterinarian Dr. Gregg Levine shows volunteers the pool for small whales and dolphins at the new Hilo facility.

Hawai'i Cetacean Rehabilitation Facility

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Marine mammal response team volunteers and Dolphin Quest employees practice dolphin restraining techniques.

Hawai‘i Cetacean Rehabilitation Facility

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Sick and injured whales and dolphins will have a place to go after the Feb. 26 opening of the Hawai'i Cetacean Rehabilitation Facility in Hilo.

Every year, 20 to 30 whales and dolphins wash up on state beaches, some already dead and others too far gone to save. But some that used to be destroyed can now be rescued, said Jason Turner, a University of Hawai'i-Hilo professor who will be the facility's director.

Much of the work will be done by the more than 100 volunteers in the Hilo Marine Mammal Response Network, many of whom are marine science students at the college.

As the only such facility in Hawai'i and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's entire Pacific region — which includes Guam, American Sāmoa and a number of remote islands — it will be able to keep one or two recuperating dolphins or small whales at a time.

"It's amazing, it really is," Turner said of the joint project by UH-Hilo, NOAA's Pacific Islands Research Office and the state Division of Aquatic Resources.

There was an initial infusion of $100,000 in NOAA money for setup, but the cetacean facility will depend on the volunteer response network and monetary donations for feed and care for the animals, which runs about $350 a day, Turner said. Transport to the center on the Big Island will be by truck. The Coast Guard will provide air transportation for animals flown in from other islands.

"I don't get paid to do this. Nobody gets paid to do this. It's a great community effort," Turner said.

The facility's 25,000-gallon saltwater pool at UH-Hilo's Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center is approved by NOAA to house 18 species of whales and dolphins, up to 20 feet long. Humpback, sperm and killer whales cannot be accommodated because of their size, Turner said.

It will not be used to house critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals, which NOAA has cared for at other facilities.

The NOAA grant paid for the fix-up of an existing small building, purchase of a pool and filtration system and set-up of several trailers for an office, storage and a food prep kitchen. There's enough money left over to pay for travel expenses for NOAA's contract veterinarian and some food for the first patient.

After that, fundraising — from T-shirt sales to searching for larger donations — is what will keep the operation going, Turner said.

He and his wife, Jennifer, the center's assistant director and a lecturer at UH-Hilo, have each worked more than a decade with the Texas marine mammal stranding network. When they came to UH-Hilo in 2005, there was no formal marine mammal response team on the Big Island.

By 2006, the Turners were coordinating the volunteer marine mammal response work of college students and enthusiastic East Hawai'i community people.

The Hilo Marine Mammal Response Network is a "great community effort — great for students and great for volunteers from the community," Turner said.

"College students have the energy to sit up poolside at 2 a.m. in the morning," caring for a sick animal, while community members bring a stability over the years, he said.

David Schofield, Pacific regional coordinator of Hawai'i's seven marine mammal stranding networks (one each for O'ahu, Maui, Lāna'i, Moloka'i, Kaho'olawe, Kaua'i and the Big Island) praised Turner and Big Island volunteers for making the rehab facility possible.

Since the closure of a non-profit-run facility at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Kāne'ohe Bay in 2005, the state has lacked a permanent place to keep ailing small whales and dolphins with the potential to heal, Schofield said.

Having such a place is "great for UH-Hilo, great for the animals, great for the National Marine Fisheries Service (a NOAA agency), and great for the students who want to become dolphin doctors," Schofield said.

Several dolphins that stranded recently would probably have qualified to be rehabilitated at the new facility, Turner said.

• On Nov. 24 a pan-tropical spotted dolphin stranded alive on the Big Island, at Makalawena. Because there was no appropriate place to care for it, it was euthanized on the beach.

• On Dec. 10, several striped dolphins that stranded on Maui might also have qualified, but misguided members of the public pushed the animals back into the water, where lifeguards later reported they were being pursued by tiger sharks. "It is critical that they are not pushed back into the water – they strand for a reason, and experts need to be able to assess these animals if we are going to be able save them," Turner said.

Despite Turner's optimism that more marine mammals will be rescued with the new Hilo facility, he warns that "there will be animals that hit the beach that we're just not going to be able to help."

But for those with a chance of healing, there's a place to go now.