Interning with ORCA

I signed up to be an intern with ORCA because I was interested in learning much more about ocean conservation and marine mammals. After focusing my dissertation on fish in the Caribbean I was very interested in marine biology and conservation and as seen on volunteerlatinamerica.com this would not only allow that, but also train you theoretically and practically, getting to work up close with marine mammals. I didn’t know too much about what I was going to be doing or get to experience until I arrived at the end of December 2014.

2015/03/img_0308.jpg
Rescuing a poisoned sea-lion; interacting with a baby before we reunited him with his mother; restraining a very injured 2 year old whilst she received fluids

This was New Years weekend, arguably the busiest of the year in San Bartolo and I was immediately thrown into the deep end. There was one volunteer here from America for 2 weeks and another for the last several days but besides that it was Carlos the director and veterinarian, Connie the coordinator and Elena the education director. Normally theoretical presentations are given to interns when they start to prepare you for the work ahead, but due to how busy it was and the current crisis I got to learn on my feet. We were holding a fundraiser in town, trying to spread a better awareness of the organisation and by selling memorabilia gain funds for the care of the sea-lions. There were 5 sea-lions in rehabilitation when I arrived – Mina, Eva, Mark, Nymeria and Ziggy, all around 1 years old and almost ready to be released. I straight away learnt how to prepare the food and medicines, feed them and clean and prepare their admissions.

General care of somewhat healthy sea-lions is fairly easy to get to grips with, especially as I worked at a stables for many years. It becomes much more complicated when new rescues arrive, especially if they are very sick and/or injured. Most things I was taught about I had no idea I would get to do, from learning how to restrain sea lions, preparing fish mash, tube feeding, preparing fluids, injecting the fluids and injections, treating wounds and learning about what the different medicines and injections do. I actually arrived with an irrational fear of needles and an inability to cope with gore or vomit. This experience cured that, you start automatically putting the sea-lions first and it makes you realise how unimportant your silly fears are when there is such a sick animal in front of you.

2015/03/img_0301.jpg

I’ve volunteered with several other organisations around the world and although they’ve been amazing experiences and I did learn many things, I’ve felt like I achieved friendships and experience more than actual conservation and left slightly confused about how I can get involved with progressive conservation and not just help fund an international organisation. ORCA was entirely different, it is a Peruvian based non-profit with a small team responsible for so much, with the animals being the full priority, with the money (which was already cheaper than most organisations I’ve been with) going completely towards their care and the future of marine mammals in Peru.

If you want your Spanish to improve you can use it because Carlos and Elena the staff members are fully Peruvian – although Carlos speaks perfect English as well. Members of the public who don’t speak English always want to know more and education is key in conservation. However if you’re not worried about speaking or learning Spanish that’s okay, as long as you’re willing to speak sea-lion! This is a genuine language and different noises are used depending on commands and to exert dominance in certain situations.

You also learn how to help in rescues. These can be quick or take a large amount of planning depending on the initial visual assessment of health and the location of the stranded animal. Different techniques are used but rescue boards are carried by the people approaching the sea-lion, because they don’t recognise humans holding boards but only see the board therefore will not get scared, as well as actually using them to block the animal and to guide them into the kennel for transportation. Boards are also used back at the base to safely manoeuvre the sea-lions and to get them back into their admissions after feeding. It takes practice because the sea lions are clever and can tell if you’re new!

Another amazing opportunity for the intern is the Penguins – they are your responsibility. Getting Poppy the Humboldt better and then getting to release her was a definite highlight, and having Rosie the Galápagos living outside of my room and happily awaiting me and attention was completely unforgettable. The moment she went from being forcefed to eating by herself was incredible, as this meant she fully stood a chance of release. 2 weeks after I left she was healthily released with other penguins.

2015/03/img_0307.jpg

The work is physically and mentally tough with long hours, and with limited protection against marine mammals in Peru and increasing violence and aggression towards them as the fish stocks are reduced, the work is constant. You have to take on a lot of knowledge quickly and are given a huge amount of responsibility. Currently there are a large number of weanling and juvenile sea-lions needing to be rescued, either due to direct hits from fishermen, acid poisoning or starvation. The acid attacks are extremely hard to come to terms with as their is no cure yet – many were lost whilst I was there but the necropsies revealed our treatment methods had been causing improvements. These necropsies can be difficult to come to terms with at first but they’re extremely important so that we can learn how to cure them and not have to lose anymore. Each loss made me more passionate and when you see individuals recover and get to be released its completely worth it.

When the crisis is not occurring as much, you will have to opportunity to do research, which is also a key apart of ORCA – with monitoring of Dolphins from boats, monitoring the acoustic impacts of Dolphins and looking at various things such as the changing of seasons for the sea-lion breeding season.

2015/03/img_0302.jpg
Researching the effects of Dolphin consumption at Cerro Azul

You become extremely adaptable because no two days are the same and you have to be prepared for everything. If you’re interested in marine biology, veterinary science, ocean conservation, marine mammalogy or just want to experience something completely different for 2 weeks to many months whilst learning all about this, I would recommend 110% becoming an intern or a volunteer. I stayed for a month and regretted not being able to stay for longer, I will be back! You’ll never be readily given this much responsibility or access to incredible sea-lions and penguins and potentially Dolphins or coastal birds. I’ve conquered my irrational fears, learnt an extortionate amount, but more importantly I was involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of 14 sea lions, with 6 being released during my time, and 2 penguins who both got to be released. I will always be part of the ORCA team now and want to encourage as many people as possible to also gain from this experience and to help the organisation that desperately needs as much as it can get!

2015/03/img_0304.png

If you want to know more, send me a message or email ORCA at orca.peru@gmail.com. And like them on Facebook at ORCA Peru for regular updates!

Prison-break Penguin

ORCA received a call from the downtown Lima police station stating that they had a penguin in custody. Her story was that she was found in someone’s house and handed in to the police, where she was kept in a form of penguin prison until the police could figure out what to do with her. Her true background story isn’t known, she may have been caught as a pet or for the meat trade or just an accidental fishing catch, however she was a good weight so she must not have been harmed. If ORCA hadn’t agreed to break her out of prison she would have been sent to a zoo, or if the zoo didn’t have room her, her future would have been very bleak. Her name became Poppy and she arrived on Thursday evening, being put to bed in a high up kennel to resemble the caves that young penguins are raised in.

2015/01/img_0235.jpg
Poppy the penguin is a roughly 3 month old Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti), found only off the coasts of Peru and Chile. Humboldts keep their young in caves, preferably amongst guano, and both parents take care of the young for 70-90 days, meaning she hadn’t been on her own for very long. Humboldt penguins grow between 56-66cms in height and weigh up to 5kgs. They have a distinctive black horseshoe band on their front and pink from their eye to their beak but because Poppy was a juvenile she hadn’t developed her adult moult yet. This species is highly influenced by the cold, nutrient rich waters of the Humboldt Current flowing from Antarctica, providing a productive area for plankton, krill and thus increasing fish abundance. Their main diet is small fish such as anchovies and sardines which they will swallow whole. The current population of the Humboldt Penguin is estimated to be between 3,300 and 12,000 individuals, with the IUCN listing them as threatened.

The Humboldt penguin used to be highly abundant but was first threatened by the mining of guano deposits for fertilisers, drastically reducing their numbers. Since then the species has seen large population size fluctuations. One natural threat to the species is the effects of El Niño, where the cold, nutrient rich waters are reduced, thus causing a decline in the number of fish species and therefore the penguins. The 1982-83 El Niño reduced the population from approximately 20,000 individuals to only 5,500. Although the numbers steadily rose again the 1997-98 El Niño also caused another decline to only 3,300 Humboldt penguins. Humans still cause an ongoing threat towards the species, with penguins becoming caught in commercial fishing nets, oil pollution, for human consumption, the pet trade or just a decrease in fish due to the increasing numbers of fishermen, leading to starvation. Penguins can lose their body weight very quickly if they don’t eat adequately, therefore we knew Poppy had been eating. Not only does their body weight decline quickly but so does their appetite – leading to the Penguins becoming unable to eat anything, which is a problem with receiving starved penguins in rehabilitation.

ORCA normally receives around 7 penguins a year, most brought to the house directly by people and often their appetites have decreased too much already that they develop other problems and sadly cannot be rehabilitated successfully. Birds are very sensitive and need to be given the upmost care. Another rehabilitation consideration is that penguins harbour diseases and parasites that can be easily transmitted to sea-lions. With 3 sea-lions currently in rehabilitation, we had to ensure everything was completely segregated, meaning separate cleaning tools, separate locations and even different clothes whether you were working with the penguin or the sea-lions.

2015/01/img_0234.jpg
The sensitivity of penguins became very obvious with Poppy on her first full day. We had constructed an indoor and an outdoor enclosure for her – complete with a paddling pool to keep cool. Penguins thermo-regulate through their feet and therefore need to soak them regularly to cool down. It is currently summer so the temperatures reach 26C most days with a strong sun. After moving her to her outdoor enclosure she fed well then resumed what penguins spend the majority of their day doing – not a lot, generally staying in the same place and only moving to excrete in a new location. There were signs of acid in her excrements, however we concluded it was due to her not feeding the day before and the stress of being in “prison”.

After an hour, she began to overheat very dramatically – signs of this are breathing through the beak, feet going from pale to red and lying down whilst breathing through the mouth. Poppy was displaying all these signs but after placing her standing in the pool she cooled down and resumed her calm disposition. Whilst with us she would tend to overheat very quickly, this may have been a sign of an infection, therefore she was treated with a set of antibiotics to help her if this was the case, or it may just have been that not being around other penguins or in a strange environment she couldn’t behave naturally and cool herself down as normal. When it became too hot she was moved to her indoor enclosure.

At night we moved her into the kennel she’d previously been in. However we then found her displaying the overheating symptoms again, but this time she was not overheating. She looked very stressed which is not normal considering Humboldt penguins spend a large amount of their time in warm and small enclosed dens. We don’t know what had happened in her past encounter with humans therefore we had to conclude it was an anxiety attack – she’d been traumatised in some way. We were sure this was the answer and not an illness because when placed back into her indoor inclosure she was much more calm, so we decided to keep her there overnight. She still looked slightly stressed but exhausted more than anything – this penguin had been through a lot these few days! I’d become very attached to Poppy and took her as my responsibility, so being a worried carer I woke several times throughout the night to go check on her and make sure she was ok. To my delight in my half-awake state she was always standing there completely fine and resting – looking much less stressed the more I checked up on her.

2015/01/img_0237.jpg
Saturday morning started with a similar routine – this time moving her to the pool every hour just incase, to keep her body at a regular temperature. Because we deemed her healthy but observed her obvious anxiety at various aspects of captivity, we wanted to return her as soon as possible because penguins should not be kept in isolation, especially not for prolonged periods of time. Her appetite was still very good, therefore in the afternoon we took her to the beach to carry out behavioural tests to see if she was ready for release. A large crowd formed but she wasn’t fazed and this became an opportunity for people to be made aware of ORCA and the rehabilitation procedures. Poppy showed signs of really wanting to return to the ocean, she’d try to dive into the rock pool we were examining her in, she ate a fish by herself in the water and was climbing the rocks – meaning she was ready for release. We couldn’t let her go there and then because at South beach at San Bartolo there are many rocks, a strong tide, many people and boats and more importantly, no penguins nearby, so we took her back to the marine mammal centre and organised the transportation for her release the next day.

2015/01/img_0238.jpg
South of San Bartolo is playa Asia where Isla Asia is located. Here is a large Humboldt penguin colony, where they live in close proximity to Pelicans (Pelecanus thagus) Cormorants (Phalacrocorax brasilianus and Phalacrocorax gaimardi) and the South American Sea-lion (Otaria flavescens). Unlike in other parts of the world where penguins fall prey to sea-lions, here they live and feed in the same areas with no problems. Placed in the penguin backpack and kept on my front we climbed onto the back of the police jet ski and headed out to the island where we incredibly got to see the species of animals we’d been rescuing living in their natural environments. As we got closer to the island, Poppy became more mobile, trying to escape from the bag – she was ready to return to the ocean! She was released in a good location near many others and began to swim around successfully. We watched her swim off, hopefully to go join the others and carry out a very normal and happy life. We have all the belief behind Poppy becoming a successful adult Humboldt penguin!

As for us, we had to dismantle her enclosures and disinfect everything she’d touched to protect our other inhabitants, but only after we got the call that another sea-lion had stranded nearby, therefore we went straight to rescue the next animal in need, a reminder that currently there is a crisis and there will always be another animal that needs ORCA’s help, so hopefully they can all have the positive outcome that Poppy had.

2015/01/img_0236.jpg