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Meet the whale vet: Dr Carla Phillips

Published: 
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
(LEFT) Dr Phillips believes that teaching children from early about the far-reaching effects of littering and all forms of land and water pollution is vital if we are to preserve our marine life. (ABOVE) Dr Carla Phillips at work with a turtle. (BELOW) Dr Carla Phillips leads fishermen of Orange Valley in the rescue of a bottlenose dolphin in 2015.

If a dolphin or whale is in trou­ble, the person to call is Dr Carla Phillips, the national co-ordina­tor for the T&T Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Phillips, a lecturer of Marine Mammal Medicine/Aquatic Animal Health at the UWI School of Veterinary Medicine, co-ordinates the res­cue of these stranded animals.

T&T Guardian environmenal col­umnist Marc DeVerteuil first met Dr Phillips in 2015, waist-deep in murky water off the Orange Valley mudflats leading a dolphin res­cue. He was impressed at how the self-described introvert took control of the group of male fishers who had volunteered to help save a dolphin from stranding. After hours of effort, the dolphin was returned to the sea.

It was a visit to Sea World in Flor­ida at age 11 that made her decide to become a killer whale trainer. Her high school friends still remember her as “the one who wanted to train killer whales”.

Now 38, her perspective has changed and instead of working with captive orcas, she is a veterinarian who helps marine mammals in the wild. In a wide-ranging interview with Dr Phillips, De Verteuil discussed a number of things, including her love for the ocean, conservation, what to do in the case of a marine mammal stranding, the effect of the loss of large whales on the ecosys­tem, and whether the Gulf of Paria can again become a breeding ground for whales.

Q: Describe yourself. Why marine mam­mals? What sets them apart?

A: I’m an introvert academic with a love for the ocean and the life that dwells in it. My mood and frame of mind shifts in a positive way when I make my way to the ocean. I love marine life, particularly marine mammals. I find them to be beautiful, charismatic, majestic creatures.

How has being an introvert affected you?

I sometimes feel anxious when faced with public interactions and I’m least comfortable when in so­cial situations. Being involved in stranding response makes it difficult to avoid public interactions so that can be a challenge. I’m quite hap­py alone in my laboratory playing around in dead fish.

Some scientists believe that dolphins have consciousness and self-awareness. They believe that these are human qualities and that therefore, dolphins have human rights. What do you think of this?

I ultimately believe in “live and let live”. My conviction is that ani­mals should have the right to exist peacefully in their natural habitat, subject primarily to their natural threats—posed by their natural predators—and without the threat of habitat loss or destruction.

Do you think that whale hunt­ing is sustainable?

Man chooses to hunt excessively and kill indiscriminately. If an ani­mal is hunted by man, it should be for the purpose of food, not sport, and should be done in a responsi­ble, controlled, measured manner without excess/over-exploitation, so as to always allow the species to replenish itself.

There is no good reason for man to include some species—marine mammals and sea turtles are good examples—in our diet, except per­haps under conditions of extreme hardship in which one’s survival is at stake and man’s basic survival instinct then drives the hunting process.

How many strandings do we have in T&T on average?

We have, on average, six to eight strandings that are reported each year across T&T. There may be more that go unreported.

Often the animal stranding is due to illness. Some of these diseases may be transmitted to humans, so it is important to be cautious and first allow the animal to be examined by veterinarians trained in marine mammal health and management and then work along with the vet­erinarians in assisting with any re-flotation attempts.

Pushing stranded marine mam­mals back out to sea without giving them the benefit of being medically examined is akin to letting some­one who has just been in a severe accident immediately walk home unassisted and unaccompanied. It’s not a good idea. These are very powerful animals which, if startled or anxious, can deliver a lethal blow to a well-meaning rescuer.

When a marine mammal strands, we are in a race against time to re-float the animal as it quickly be­comes distressed and physiological­ly compromised, since the weight of its often massive body is not meant to be supported on land.

Can you explain the term “the cascading effect of the loss of whales”?

One classic example is that of the apex predator, the orca or kill­er whale. They are at the top of the predator list in the ocean, with some populations being known to hunt other large whales.

With the loss of large whales, some killer whale populations shift­ed to hunting sea otters. But for sea otters, sea urchins represent a sig­nificant percentage of their diet. As the killer whales shifted their focus to hunting sea otters, the sea otter population declined, causing the sea urchin population to increase.

Sea urchins graze on kelp. With the increase in sea urchins, the kelp forests have dramatically declined. Kelp forests serve an important role in regulating carbon dioxide con­centrations in the atmosphere.

What are the greatest threats to marine mammals in T&T? How best can we reduce those threats?

If out at sea, entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris. If near shore or on land, the greatest threat is man.

We can reduce these threats by public education, fostering a sense of compassion and re­sponsibility in our chil­dren at an early age, pro­moting the importance of aquatic ecosystem conservation, use of eco-friendly marine gear, developing a sense of basic civic pride and an understanding of the far-reaching effects of littering and all forms of land and water pollution.

Do you ever find plastic or other types of trash in them during necropsies?

During necropsies we are always on the look-out for debris in the digestive tract of these marine animals that wash ashore (including sea turtles). To date, we have not seen any such debris within the tracts. We have, however, seen entanglement in plastic debris, ropes, fishing line and trash.

I have smelled dead cetaceans (dolphins and whales) and they can stink. How do you deal with the smell when handling them?

Dead whales and dol­phins can really stink and the stench lingers and permeates just about every fabric the carcass touches. I have had the smell in my hair and on my skin for days. I was very aware of it in the earlier years, but inter­estingly, I have now be­come somewhat “nose-blind” when it comes to the stench. I barely smell it after that initial whiff. Instead, what I typically feel when doing necrop­sies on smelly carcasses is actually hunger (but certainly not for whale meat!)… Weird, but true.

The Gulf of Paria was once known as the Golfo de la Balle­na, the Gulf of Whales. Why do you think that whales liked the Gulf of Paria so much? What were they doing here?

Humpbacks were quite abundant. They still mi­grate through our waters today. Many of the 19 cetacean species (of the more than 80 species known globally) that we still see in our waters today would have been present perhaps in larger numbers and there may have been others.

I suspect that the enclosed shape of the Gulf of Paria provided a natural harbour or shel­tered area from the open ocean. With the abun­dance of prey that would have existed within the area at the time and the minimal threats prior to the whaling boom, the Gulf may have represent­ed a natural safe haven and congregating point.

Can the Gulf of Paria become a whale habi­tat again?

With the movement of faster-moving shipping vessels, large quantities of fishing gear (drift nets, trawl lines etc) and ma­rine debris, the Gulf of Paria poses many threats to cetaceans.

Unless there are en­forced laws that regulate the speed at which ves­sels travel through areas known to be utilised dur­ing species migration, bans or restrictions on the use of certain types of fishing gear, regular monitoring of waters to prevent deleterious human interactions and measures generally put in place to protect these animals from the many more anthropogenic threats that exist today, I don’t foresee the Gulf again becoming a habi­tat in which whales are seen in great abundance comparable to that which once existed.

For T&T, if one encounters a stranded marine mammal, kindly contact the Wildlife/ Forestry Division (Trinidad: 662-5114, 645-4288; Tobago: 639-2570, 735-4369) and the TTMMSN (466-2709, 735-3530)

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