Lesanna Lahner ’04

No Blue, No Green

By Greg Breining

Lesanna Lahner had a problem. As veterinarian in charge of marine creatures at the Seattle Aquarium, she kept getting calls from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency charged with enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act, with news of stranded or injured harbor seals, porpoises, and sea turtles. At the time, there were no marine animal rehabilitation facilities in all of Washington and Oregon.

“There was no place to take the injured seals and otters and turtles,” says Lahner ’04. “After years of having to euthanize these animals, I was heartbroken. I knew we needed a rehab facility in Washington.” So in 2016, using funds raised from private donors, Lahner founded the nonprofit Sealife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research. Known as SR3, the Seattle-based marine animal rescue organization conducts research on local orca populations and sea stars; rescues whales, dolphins, and other sea creatures entangled in fishing gear; and, with the opening of its new facility on the Seattle waterfront, will finally fulfill one of its principal goals: rehabilitating injured marine wildlife.

The nonprofit’s new facility, expected to open in spring 2019, will include a state-of-the-art hospital equipped to rehabilitate a variety of species, including sea otters, seals, and porpoises. Research and teaching facilities will allow visitors to view animals up close. Lahner wants visitors to understand that the oceans and their inhabitants are currently in serious trouble—and that our own survival is closely linked to
marine conservation.

“We can’t exist without the oceans,” she says. “They are the lungs of the planet. If we continue to pollute them and if climate change continues at its current pace, life on land and sea just cannot exist.” Lahner quotes marine biologist and conservationist Sylvia Earle: “No blue, no green.”

Lahner grew up with horses, dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, rats, rabbits—“the usual menagerie,” she says. She began volunteering at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota and the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota when she was 11. “I would talk to people at street fairs and educational events about raptors—their biology, what they eat, how important they are for the ecosystem,” she says.

She majored in biology at Carleton and went on to earn a master’s degree in public health and a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Wisconsin. She worked a short stint as a veterinary epidemiologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, which dispatched her on a rabies eradication project in the Serengeti. She loved the job but not Chicago, so she jumped at an opening at the Seattle Aquarium. As the aquarium’s first full-time vet, Lahner cared for marine creatures ranging from octopuses to fur seals to sea otters. “I was eager to work with animals I didn’t know much about,” she says. “I came out of Carleton with the ability to gain new skills. I know how to pick up something new and run with it.”

The same can be said of her decision to launch SR3. “It’s been an exciting journey for me to go from serving as a veterinarian to being an executive director with a full-time staff and a board of directors,” she says.

SR3 staff members are currently focused on two troubling phenomena. One is the mysteriously dwindling population of the orca—or killer whale—an iconic Pacific Northwest mammal. Listed as a federal endangered species since 2005, the whales spend much of the year in Puget Sound. Their numbers have appeared to dwindle by 8 individuals in the past 18 months, down to 67. Lahner says the cause could be related to pollution, disturbance from vessels, or shortage of prey. “That’s our research angle,” she says. “We continue to observe their health with drones.” SR3 staff members check on the orcas’ body condition and growth rates, and report their findings twice a year to NOAA.

Lahner also has become an authority on sea star wasting disease, a confounding epidemic that has destroyed vast communities of what are more commonly called starfish.

“When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, the rocks in the whole region were covered with these beautiful pink and purple and orange creatures. Now it’s hard to find a sea star. It’s the largest wildlife die-off in modern times,” she says.

Lesanna Lahner ’04Lesanna Lahner ’04 Until its new facility is completed, SR3 has limited capacity for long-term care of injured wildlife. “We drive them to the nearest rehab facility, which is in California,” says Lahner. “I know that sounds crazy, but with endangered species, every individual counts.”

Worldwide, as many as 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die each year after getting tangled in ropes and nets—most from active fisheries. Near Seattle, whales typically snare the rope tethering a crab pot to a buoy. Whales often feed in the same productive waters where crabs are abundant, Lahner says.

Freeing an ensnared whale is dangerous work. Lahner has hired a whale entanglement specialist and purchased the boats and other specialized equipment needed for the job, which requires NOAA permits that are issued only to highly trained responders.

“Whales are massive and they’re scared of boats, so not just anyone can ride up and start poking at them to remove a rope,” says Lahner, who has accompanied SR3 whale expeditions in the support boat but is not certified to have contact with the mammals. “I’m not sure I ever will be,” she says. Even after several years plying ocean waters, she still gets predictably and utterly seasick. “It’s my physiology,” she says. “My sea legs will never grow.”

She is able to get close enough to do a medical exam. From a small boat, she assesses body condition, scans for injuries, and listens to the whale’s respiratory rate. (A whale’s breathing is really loud—no special equipment is required.) Her team also flies instrumented drones through a whale’s exhalation plume to evaluate its respiratory  bacterial community.

“Boy, they get angry [during the exam],” she says. “They’ll warn you. They’ll blow bubbles at you. They’ll slap the water. They don’t want anything to do with us.”

Eventually, she wants to be able to administer medicine to marine mammals more effectively. If a whale is wounded by a boat, “we want to be able to deliver antibiotics or give it pain meds for those injuries,” she says. “However, it is challenging to dart a whale, and the darts are painful. We are keen to develop more effective, pain-free alternatives such as delivering a mist of medication via a drone positioned over
the blowhole.”

Lesanna Lahner ’04Lesanna Lahner ’04

Earth’s oceans face myriad threats: pollution, overfishing, acidification, climate change. “We become incredibly discouraged when we see what’s happening,” says Lahner.

In the absence of an ability to make global change, she finds satisfaction in small victories. One uplifting moment came in August 2017 when someone found a stranded gray whale calf on the beach. Though young, it still weighed several tons. SR3 staff members and rescuers from Cascadia Research were called in.

They anchored a pulley beyond the whale at low tide and ran a stout rope to another pulley up on the beach. On the night of a high tide, they fastened the rope to a harness under the whale’s pectoral fins. “I gave it injections of pain and anti-inflammatory medications,” Lahner says.

As the tide advanced, incoming waves began to lift the whale. “We pulled and pulled and pulled,” she says. As the whale began to float, rescuers released the harness, and the whale, so long immobile, was able to move its flukes to drive its bulk forward. “Suddenly, the whale just swam off,” she says. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, did this just happen?’  It was like magic.”

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