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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

Man vs. Mammal

As I’ve previously stated, 80% of marine mammal strandings are due to negative human interaction of some sort. Needless to say, the majority of the injuries or attacks are caused by the people who spend most of their time in the marine environment and who see marine mammals as competition – the fishermen. Peruvian waters are normally considered very marketable, with over 50 species caught for commercial purposes and the 2,414km coastline supporting over 40 fishing ports.

The Peruvian fishing industry used to be based mainly on exporting fish meal, which is used as poultry feed. However, in the 1970s overfishing almost led to the complete disappearance of anchovies in the area. The fishing industry also suffers fluctuations similar to the Penguins, depending on the El Niño, where the warming of the currents will decrease the numbers of most fish species and cause the waters to become far less productive. It can be thought of as slightly understandable that the less marine mammals would lead to more fish, however this is not actually the case and the lengths of harm and torture they are putting the animals through is so unjust, people need to be made aware of the crisis and it needs to be stopped. The reason for the decreasing numbers of fish in the waters and smaller catches is due to factors such as climate change, overfishing and an ever growing number of fishermen – the sea-lion and dolphin population is far from growing – they are not the problem. In fact, ORCA are receiving more and more sea-lions, especially juveniles, who are simply suffering from starvation due to the lack of fish.

Sea-lions have learnt to eat fish off the hooks and this is what juveniles in particular tend to do, because they don’t swim out as far or deep as older members. In response to this well adapted behaviour – fishermen are taking these hooks and attacking the sea lions, leaving huge ripped wounds in their sides, on their head or anywhere else the fisherman can get to. Unlike Dolphins who when they struggle become hooked deeper, sea-lions can escape the situation, surviving but left with the gaping wounds. Fishermen are also using the hooks and various objects as a hitting weapon, causing indescribable fractures and breaks. For example, in January we rescued Alice, who had stranded and been so terrified of humans that she had climbed a rock face around 20 feet high. This was completely understandable, she had 4 deep wounds on her back, shoulder and sides, she’d lost several teeth and had a fractured nose, causing puss and blood to be coming out and her face entirely distorted by the swelling around the hit.

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Alice’s rescue and fractured nose. Being restrained in order to receive fluids and treatments, the most humane way for her to receive everything she needs to recover

Alice was becoming anaemic due to the wounds and couldn’t properly close her mouth due to the break. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt here it’s that sea-lions are tough animals, far tougher than humans and are able to survive with much worse injuries. But here, Alice was in obvious pain, her whiskers were shaking, she had tears due to the pressure and pain. In order to help her the ORCA team are restraining her 3 times a day, tube feeding her, giving her 1 litre of dextrose and 1 of sodium chloride a day, a full set of injections twice a day, anti-inflammatory cream for her nose and treating her wounds. She is looking better every day, with the inflammation on her nose going down drastically, more colour coming back to her regularly, an obvious increase in strength and health and she can close her mouth. ORCA took her to the vet in Lima where fortunately it revealed the fracture which in time will heal and she will be able to survive in the wild again with a lot more care. Once back at the base she had to have several bone pieces removed that had broken and become lodged in her gums, which should increasingly reduce the pressure and pain in her mouth. It’ll be a while until she’s ready to eat fish again let alone be released, but the ORCA team are giving her everything she needs and allowing her to recover at her own pace. An update 2 weeks later says she is still needing this care but becoming stronger and showing her personality more every day.

It’s not just the fisherman attacking with hooks and blunt hits whilst the sea-lions are in the water, we’ve had many cases of attacks on sea-lions that have stranded – already weak and a much easier target. On Cerro Azul we found a dead baby sea-lion with its head smashed in by humans. Arguably the worst attack I saw had been on Barnacle – who arrived to us completely blind due to a hit to the head. After assessing it was horrifically revealed that his skull had not only been fractured but smashed completely – the fact that he was alive is a show of how hardy sea-lions are, but sadly with this extreme injury there was nothing that could have been done so he had to be put down. This was the right decision because the necropsie revealed that his skull had essentially disappeared – the whole front of his brain was exposed with just tiny fragments lodged in other places.

Fishermen are also becoming more tough with their approaches, with the use of poison. They are putting rat poison into fish they’ve caught and throwing it back in for the marine mammals to consume. ORCA is working on treatment methods to this new crisis, but depending on the level of poison in the individuals systems it means they don’t stand a chance as the poison slowly and painfully burns through their stomach and intestines. The fact that this is not well known or illegal in Peru is awful and people need to be exposed to the horrible truth so no more sea-lions have to suffer or die in this terrible way.

Many Peruvians are generally unaware of these horrible occurrences and are shocked when we tell them what has caused these injuries. By spreading the word and knowledge of what is occurring on and off of the coast, more people will be willing to make a difference and cause a change in attitude and behaviour. ORCA has been interviewed by several media sources about the direct hits and the acid attacks, all in the hopes of a progressive future where education will lead to permanent change and an end to the crisis.