The largest whale stranding event in recorded history took place in 2015 in the extremely remote region of the Golfo de Penas in Chilean Patagonia. In the unknown fjords surrounding this Gulf, 337 baleen whale carcasses were discovered by a team of scientific divers engaged on benthic marine life studies aboard the sailing vessel “Saoirse”. Later, Keri Pashuk and Greg Landreth, the captains of this vessel, guided another team of skilled scientific researchers to the site in an effort to find the answers to the enigma surrounding the deaths of the whales. PRAXES provides 24-7 medical support for this adventurous team as they explore one of the most isolated regions of the world. Keri and Greg answered a few questions for us regarding their work and why telemedicine is the right choice to support their team.
Can you tell us about your work with the “Return to the Whales” Expedition?
“We just finished up a whale study project here in the Golfo de Penas in Patagonia Chile. In April 2015, we were supporting a team of scientific divers headed by Dr. Vreni Haussermann when we came across 32 whale carcasses on the beaches there. We had to leave the Gulf then, but we felt strongly that more need to be done; we simply couldn’t see 32 dead whales lying there and do nothing about it. We launched a private campaign to seek funding so that we might be able to return with scientists to investigate and in February and May of 2016 we led two study groups coordinated by Dr. Vreni Haussermann and Dr. Carolina Gutstein. They had hired a private plane to fly over the area, discovering a further 200 whale carcasses. After our February trip, the tally went up to to 337 and its now nearly 400. There are many different scientific studies going on during these trips ranging from oceanography to paleontology to red-tide testing. In February, we were even able to conduct three necropsies on the whales and left behind time lapse cameras set up to monitor the areas on a long term basis.” – Keri-Lee Pashuk
In your opinion, why is the support from PRAXES necessary?
“We have been living on the sea for almost 27 years doing many expeditions to places like Antarctica without telemedecine. We never thought about it because it simply didnt exist. Before using PRAXES we had an accident where Greg lost one of his fingers while at sea. It was going to be several days before we could get to land. Though I have advanced wilderness first aid training, I realized that it wasn’t going to be enough and what we really needed was to have an experienced doctor on call. At the time we managed to call a doctor friend of ours who advised me on what to do. Having access to that depth of medical experience takes a lot of the worry out of the expedition. Its pretty lonely out there and its just good to know that there is someone there for us when something serious goes wrong.” – KP
“We’re accustomed to being on our own but in recent years we have been bringing along people who might not be as experienced and, being captains, we are responsible for them. We realized that something serious may eventually go wrong, so the whole idea of having that backup became attractive, then necessary. As time goes on that will become more and more true for all people who work in remote places. We have experienced many extremes in our travels and admittedly we relied a lot on luck in those years but that time has passed. We have had to come to terms with the fact that anything can happen, its a matter of when, not if.” – GL
The “Return to the Whales” Project team leaders, Greg Landreth, and Keri-Lee Pashuk
Have there been many times when your team has had to call PRAXES?
“We did call for a test trial for a minor situation. Our young crew member was having some problems with her fingernails and it was getting worrisome. We got advice on that and it was very helpful. It made her feel much better and we could continue to work for three weeks in an area where the closest doctor was a two day sail away and another six hours by car.” – KP
“It was good to know that the system did work. We know that if little things go wrong, they can quickly multiply, so it was great to test the system and find that it worked very well. There is the real value in that for us – having a standard to measure our own risk assessments and actions against.” – GL
Do you think that telemedicine is an effective medical support system for those working remotely?
“We haven’t had direct experience with a serious emergency when we had to call PRAXES but I think that knowing expert physicians are there for us eases our minds. They are available at any time to advise us on something that we could miss in a moment. Imagine all the possible variables – the boat is moving, there might be a storm and you have to keep the boat going, you can’t stop and you need help.” – KP
“It’s kind of interesting actually. Right now, we are here on our boat next to Puerto Edén, the most remote village in Chile, and there are some medical facilities here but we know that we have access to better medical advice than all the town’s people do.” – GL
What is next for your team?
“The plan is to go back to the Golfo de Penas and continue the whale studies, looking at their behavior with sophisticated tools such as underwater bio-accoustics, filming and documenting the experience as well . Plus, we’d like to set up a semi-permanent base camp with the sailing vessel to study orca attacks on sei whales, something we witnessed on the February trip. We are missing a core part of the project which is the social side. We want to speak with the fishermen, lighthouse keepers and the local people of Puerto Edén and hear their stories about whales and their own interactions with whales. There’s also the whole red-tide thing that’s been menacing the fishery on the entire coast of Chile which may be a factor. We’re still missing a large part of our project, so it’s not over yet.” – KP
“Everyone agrees that there is a strong case for further monitoring in that area. Now, we need to get all interested parties involved including people from the science side, the locals and fishermen and ask what they want us to do. It may be that no-one can ever know exactly why these 400 whales washed ashore but people might not have known about any of it if we hadn’t started this research. We need to build on our presence there. It’s very much worth pursuing and may become a unifying part of the history of the coast. The real value, especially of the last two trips, is that people who would have never known about this are now involved, connected and concerned.” – GL
The “Return to the Whales” team at work
Photos by Keri-Lee Pashuk