It’s not every day that you might have to tend a grey whale with an inflamed tail, rescue a sea lion caught in a plastic noose or nurse a half-frozen sea turtle back to life. Unless you’re Dr. Marty, whose regular encounters with creatures in distress on Canada’s west coast brought a video crew calling last year.
That’s how this U of G grad became the star of a new docuseries aired this spring about the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (MMRC) run from the Vancouver Aquarium. The centre runs the largest program rescuing marine mammals in Canada.
Produced by White Pine Pictures in Toronto, Wild Pacific Rescue aired in three one-hour episodes through late April on Cottage Life TV. Filming took place over 2019 and 2020.
The series follows Martin Haulena (DVM ’93, M.Sc. ’99) and a team from the aquarium as they launch their inflatable Zodiac and head offshore to track down and rescue wildlife reported to be in distress.
In each episode, they work with four or five creatures, ranging from rescuing harbour seal pups separated from their mothers to disentangling fishing line from sea lions.
The camera also follows Haulena treating animals at the MMRC, including helping an African penguin fight off infection, restoring the sight of an Amazonian duck and healing an aging fruit bat.
The stories have good and bad endings, he says. “These are animals in real need and in real trouble. The film crew caught everything.”
Typically, his team gets called in when someone notices a creature in distress. As with the sea lion with the base of a plastic bucket wrapped around its neck, it’s usually a problem connected to humans. “We don’t want to interfere with natural processes,” says Haulena. “We get called when people have done something.”
Through the summer peak period, they get at least 100 calls a week.
One day this spring, they delivered antibiotics to a 12-metre-long grey whale to treat a potential infection. “That’s the biggest animal I’ve ever treated for anything,” he said. “What I like about this job is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Weird things happen all the time.”
Initially he was skeptical about doing the series. He’d been on camera before, including the Canadian series Hope for Wildlife and Yukon Vet. At least one company had proposed a reality show, but he turned them down.
Haulena was sold on the producer’s vision of Wild Pacific Rescue as a way to convey an important message to viewers.
“Animals are born with a lot of challenges. We as people have made life even more challenging for the species we share our planet with. I want to share their stories.”
It’s not all negative, he says. “I want people to know there’s good stuff happening out there, too. It would be cool if this show inspires the next generation.”
Growing up in Ottawa, he aimed to become a marine biologist. Only when he got to U of G did he realize that he really wanted to become a veterinarian; he pursued the zoo veterinary specialization through the Ontario Veterinary College.
He even had a chance to work with marine creatures on campus: U of G still had a seal colony in the Arboretum during his studies. “I owe everything to Guelph,” he says.
He completed a master’s degree in pathobiology in 1999.
Haulena joined the Vancouver Aquarium in 2006 after nine years as a veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif. As head veterinarian and director of animal health in Vancouver, he heads a team of 14 people plus about 300 volunteers.
Together they tend some 1,000 animals at the aquarium. The aquarium also conducts research, including treating animals with cancer, studying an earlier wasting syndrome causing a die-off of sea stars, and publishing on swallowing issues in harbour seals.
About 1 million people visit the Vancouver Aquarium each year.