Center celebrates latest whale release

SAVING THE WHALES::The Marine Biology & Cetacean Research Center is renowned for its work, but struggles for funding and relies on an army of dedicated volunteers

By Tsai Wen-chu and Jason Pan  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Tue, Jun 25, 2013 - Page 5

A rescued pygmy killer whale that beached on the coast of Pingtung County in April was released back to the sea last week after a record 66 days of rehabilitation involving the efforts of more than 1,000 volunteers.

The release of “A-Gan” (阿淦), a male pygmy killer whale (Feresa attenuata), was another notable success for National Cheng Kung University’s renowned Marine Biology & Cetacean Research Center.

Since 2000, the center has earned an outstanding international reputation after rescuing and rehabilitating 36 stranded dolphins and whales and successfully releasing five of them back into the wild.

Thanks to these success stories, the center has enhanced Taiwan’s international standing in terms of marine conservation work.

According to the center’s director, Wang Chien-ping (王建平), Taiwan and Japan are the leading countries in Asia in terms of experience and attaining results in scientific research into dolphins and whales.

As for rescuing the marine mammals, Wang said Taiwan is more successful and has put in more effort than Japan.

“A-Gan’s” pod of pygmy killer whales were found beached on the coast of Chechen Township (車城) on April 14.

After being alerted, volunteers from the Marine Biology & Cetacean Research Center worked through the day to save and help revive six of the whales.

Wang said that of the six whales rescued that day, three died afterward. Two healthy whales were released back to the sea four days later.

The remaining whale was given the name “A-Gan” by volunteers, and was brought back for rehabilitation at the center’s facilities in Sihcao (四草), Greater Tainan.

Wang said that because “A-Gan” had sustained an external injury and had lung and liver problems, he was unable to ingest food or swim.

He recalled it took a lot of effort to save “A-Gan,” as the center needed volunteers around the clock to carefully handle and protect him.

Wang said that when he arrived, the pygmy killer whale was 133kg, but his weight fell to 117kg at one time, before recovering to 122.5kg as he returned to full health.

After the whale began feeding normally — up to 8.5kg of fish food per day — experts judged that “A-Gan” was ready to be released into the wild.

“A-Gan” needed 66 days of rehabilitation, with a total of more than 1,000 volunteers offering round the clock care, as he surpassed the center’s previous record of 64 days of rehabilitation, for a bottled-nose dolphin, last year.

For all its success and international recognition, Wang said that the center is severely under-funded, with an annual working budget of only about NT$1 million (US$33,000) and relies on the hard work and selflessness of volunteers.

Much of the center’s funding comes from Wang himself, and he has even taken out bank loans to sustain its operation.

“We are not only the first in Asia for rescuing dolphins and whales, we are the first in Asia in terms of lack of resources,” one volunteer worker said.

“The average cost of rescuing one marine mammal is NT$600,000. With our annual funding of only NT$1 million, in theory, we can rescue two a year at best,” the volunteer said.

“However, so far this year, our center has rescued nine animals. So you can see expenses far outstrip the available funds,” the volunteer said.

“Besides Taiwan and Japan, in recent years, China has started to get involved in marine mammal rescue,” Wang said.

“They have invested a large amount of money to build up their facilities, and are catching up to Taiwan, but their experience in rescue and rehabilitation still lags far behind us,” he said.

The center has organized donation drives in the past, but with disappointing results. This leads Wang and the center’s volunteers to feel that, “in terms of soliciting public donations, rescuing dolphins and whales fares far worse than saving stray dogs.”

For the overall 66-day effort to rehabilitate “A-Gan”, Wang pointed out that the center had to bear much of the expense.

“It costs money to buy boxed meals for volunteers. It also costs money for the rescue vehicles, for the towing and winching machinery, and for the capelin fish to feed the whale,” he said.

“The vehicle used to haul ‘A-Gan’ to sea cost NT$14,000 to rent, and we still do not know how to pay for it,” Wang said.

The volunteers jokingly pointed to the rescued pygmy killer whale.

“He is the guy who’s eaten up all our center’s money,” they said.