British Divers Marine Life Rescue
British Divers Marine Life Rescue (photo: Steve Marsh)
British Divers Marine Rescue


2019-05-28 15:30:27

Orkney Pilot Whales Incident

Over the bank holiday weekend, two pods of pilot whales have been successfully herded out of danger of becoming stranded from the Orkney Isles of Sanday and Stronsay thanks to the combined efforts of BDMLR Medics, islanders, local boat operators and others.

The logistically complex rescue began on Friday 24th May, when a pod of 13 whales were first spotted in St Catherine's Bay, Stronsay, very close to shore and apparently supporting one of their number at the surface that may have been ill or injured. A second, larger group of around 30 animals was then also found off Sanday milling around near Kettletoft.

Throughout Saturday they were monitored closely, and due to the concerns over them becoming stranded, arrangements were made to transport more sets of BDMLR's whale rescue pontoons by plane from across Scotland and Northern England along with more personnel. Meanwhile, further arrangements began to put together a plan to gently herd the animals back out to deeper water using a flotilla of boats, which would be carried out under a special licence held by BDMLR as cetaceans are protected from disturbance.

By Sunday, word went round and offers of boats started coming in,and the plan came into action. To help move the whales further away from the shallows at Sanday, islanders plus a couple of kayakers began with making a noise wall from the shore to help move the group further out to where the boats could operate effectively. They in turn then took over shepherding the pod out and around the headland Eastwards. The animals responded very well, and although they split up a couple of times, they were safely left a good distance offshore late in the evening, with an exhausted team returning to shore ready to do the same at Stronsay the next day, as well as hoping that this pod would stay offshore and not return!

The pod at Stronsay would prove trickier to move, as they had spent most of the previous day in a shallow and narrow channel where the risk of them stranding was high and boats would not be able to move around very easily either, and on Monday morning remained in the same place. However, the big difference was that the animal that the others had been supporting no longer appeared to be affected by health issues and was swimming normally in the group without assistance. The same plan was put into action later in the afternoon to coincide with high tide again, and a flotilla of boats in formation started escorting the pod out of the bay. Much like the previous group, although they split up occasionally, they were again easily persuaded to head around the headland and moved towards the East, this time being taken much further until they had cleared the small islet of Auskerry. They were left later that evening to carry on their journey, and will hopefully reunite with the other pod, as they were suspected to have been one group originally.

This was an absolutely fantastic effort from all involved with this incident, as not only was the remoteness of the location an issue, but also having two separate groups to work with on two different islands with limited resources. Thankfully the animals did not strand, and the herding efforts were far more effective than we could have hoped, and we remain cautiously optimistic that this has been a very successful operation.

There are a large number of people and organisations that were involved throughout this incident one way or another to whom we would like to extend our sincerest thanks - this really was a story of a community coming together to help these animals any way they could:

- Stronsay: John Stevenson, Leslie Miller, Ian Cooper, Iain Johnston, Craig Weaver, Charlie Riching Stronsay Ranger, Richard Seaber at Stronsay Fish Mart.

- Sanday: Imogen Sawyer, Martin Sawyer and Russell Neave, Magda MacDonald, Jonathan Hines, Johanna Gilbert, Andy and Cynthia Leggat, Beth Barnes-Wilcox, Anna Halford, plus all the residents who came to help with creating the sound wall.

- Boats: Northerly Marine ServicesLeask Marine LtdScottish SeafarmsCooke Aquaculture Scotland Ltd for providing boats and crews for herding the whales and for ferrying around people/equipment.

- Graham Mountford of Sky Watch - UK Civil Air Patrol England & Wales for flying up whale pontoons and Medics from England and Scotland.

- All BDMLR Medics involved on the ground and behind the scenes: Emma Neave-Webb, Dave Gaskell, Penny Martin, Sam and Marc Herridge, Ross Flett, Karen Hetherington, Anne Bignall, Dave Wakefield, Tracey Jackson, Scott Napier, Colin McFadyen, Martin Boon, Richard Ilderton, Smudger, Cath Bain and Leigh-Anne Adams. Additionally of course Out of Hours Coordinator Corinne Gordon, staff members Julia Cable and Teri Charlton, and our Chairman Alan Knight!

Photo courtesy of Iain Johnston