ORCA – the organisation for the research and conservation of aquatic animals is a non-profit Peruvian organisation based in San Bartolo, a district 52km South of central Lima. This area within the eastern South Pacific Ocean is one of the most biodiverse marine environments in the world, however it receives very little protection. For over 14 years ORCA have pioneered the way forward in marine conservation in Peru by developing rescue operation protocols, veterinary science treatments, education campaigns and conservation strategies. They are dedicated to the protection of marine species, including: the South American sea-lion (Otaria byronia); Galapagos Fur seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis); Marine otter (Lontra felina); Bottle-nose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus); Dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus), Long and Short Beaked Common dolphins (Delphinus capensis and Delphinus delphis); Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti); Galápagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) and sea turtles.

The main aim is to create a balanced link between humans and the marine ecosystem along the Peruvian coastline, by promoting ecological values through education, research, public engagement and involvement in Ocean conservation. The founder of the organisation is marine vet Dr. Carlos Yaipen-Llanos who was the first qualified marine vet in the country. Alongside Carlos are marine biologist and coordinator Connie Jones and environmental education director Elena Romero Rojas. Together with any interns or volunteers, this small team is the sole organisation protecting and rescuing marine mammals along the coastline. The base site in San Bartolo is the South Pacific Marine Mammal Centre, which was started on May 24th 2003 with “Oscar”, the first American sea-lion to be rescued, rehabilitated and released in Peru. Since then, ORCA has successfully treated over a hundred cases of gastritis, pneumonia, fractures, septicaemia and kidney failure among many other disorders. ORCA’s veterinary research has led to the discovery of cancer in South American sea-lions, the presence of distemper virus in sea-lion rookeries and the successful treatment of a bottle-nose dolphin with pneumonia.

ORCA is a non-profit organisation, with all money going towards the projects, fish, medicines, research, cleaning equipment and travel costs for rescues. The sea-lions and animals in rehabilitation are always the priority, no matter how expensive certain treatments are they are all given as much as they need. The main income is through international volunteers and interns, of which I am currently one for this month. Not only are you helping run the organisation with your donation, but the responsibility, training and experience given is completely invaluable and you are fully integrated into the team, getting involved in every aspect. The other funds are provided through donations – with sea-lions adopted, memorabilia sold and fundraisers held. On weekends the centre is open to visitors where the public can come and see the rehabilitation for themselves, which is also helping to promote awareness and connect people to these incredible marine mammals.

There is no set plan for the whole day here – feedings and cleanings are carried out at 8am, 2pm and 8pm, taking several hours depending on the number of individuals and the types of treatments needed. During the day there are often a string of calls about stranded animals so rescues are carried out, field data is collected, research is analysed, media events are held, education events and campaigns are given, interns and volunteers are trained, general maintenance and much more.

Rescues require preparation and planning and travelling can take several hours all along the Peruvian coastline, however this travelling is necessary as ORCA is the sole rescuer of stranded marine mammals. The team drops everything in order to rescue and bring them back to the marine mammal centre where their health is assessed and treated accordingly, giving them as much treatment and time as needed. Once their health is better they are paired with others and pool tests are given to assess their natural hunting abilities and increase their competitive nature, skills vital to be released back into the wild. The aim is to get the animals as healthy and ready for release as soon as possible, so they can be released back to where they belong. Before release each individual is tagged so they can be monitored.

Rescuing Isleña, Mark and Mina in the pool and Mina showing the small identification tag

In Peru, human impact is responsible for over 80% of marine mammal strandings. On an “average” year ORCA will release around 15 sea-lions. However, in 2014 alone there were 60 releases, demonstrating a huge crisis for the species. In October the centre managed to rehabilitate 32 sea-lions at one time. In the 2 weeks I’ve been here I’ve been involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of 12 sea-lions and one penguin. These juvenile sea-lions are coming in with direct hits from fishermen hooks, starvation, or the increasingly common tragedy – poisoning from fishermen. These fishermen are putting rat poison into fish and throwing them back into the water for all marine mammals to consume. Sadly there is no fixed cure yet and many individuals have died due to the acid burning through the entire stomach and intestines causing severe gastritis and haemorrhages. Necropsies are carried out on deceased sea lions in order to see the full problem and to learn from them, hopefully saving more in the future. This is important research in order to develop a successful treatment. Afterwards they are buried on a peaceful private beach.

Pirate, Miguella and Isleña – all victims of poisoning, with Pirate also losing her eye in a hook attack

Direct hook impacts have also been a common injury found on the stranded juvenile sea-lions. These are the hooks commonly used to kill Dolphins with. We know that the hook attacks are not accidental because sea-lions in Peru have adapted to eating just the body’s off hooked fish, leaving the head and thus feeding unharmed. They are highly intelligent mammals and therefore these terrible injuries are purposefully from humans themselves. They normally occur on the sea-lions side – the same way Dolphins are hooked, however we have found individuals with wounds on their heads and problems or the complete loss of their eyes due to the attack.

Another tragic human impact is that on Dolphins. In March and April 2012, hundreds of Dolphins washed up on remote beaches along the northern coast of Peru. Hardy Jones, executive director of the dolphin and whale conservation organisation Bluevoice, and Carlos went to a 135km stretch of the coastline repeatedly throughout April and confirmed 747 dolphin deaths, 91% being the long-beaked common dolphin. Necropsies were carried out on the stranded Dolphins and Carlos came to the conclusion that they had died due to acoustic trauma and decompression syndrome. Now this may not seem related to humans, however, seismic testing by oil companies was being carried out in the area at the time. This is one project that ORCA is collecting research and raising awareness on. Another is that of Dolphins killed for meat, where their bodies are hooked and ripped open just for a small part for human consumption, despite the toxic levels of mercury in Dolphins. There are no protection regulations against the killing of Dolphins therefore it is still a common practice in certain areas.

One of the necessary conservation methods is through education campaigns and ORCA gives school and university talks throughout the region, as well as hosting schools at the marine mammal centre itself. Campaigns such as “Deplastify Your Life” are given to help promote sustainable development and the conservation of a healthy marine ecosystem. The team always makes the time to talk to the public during rescues – opening people’s eyes to the negative affects of human impacts and creating a willingness to help and change.

ORCA’s name has considerably grown in recent years and hopefully with the continuing efforts people of Peru will begin to become more connected with their marine environment, leading to sustainable development and less harm of these highly intelligent and evolved marine mammals. Until the health of the species is restored and saved, the ORCA team will continue to pioneer research and veterinary science, run innovative projects and campaigns, rescue and rehabilitate all marine mammals in need and put everything they have into this very worthy cause.

Poppy the Humboldt penguin who was successfully rehabilitated and released