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


2006-02-17 14:58:07

Common dolphin stranding at Whitsand Bay, Cornwall

I received the call from Sue at HQ in Sussex at about 1300hrs. A holiday maker Danny Sharrard, had found the dolphin quite high up on the beach at Tregonhawke (map ref: SX405513) and had the presence of mind to transfer it to a large rock pool. He had no idea how long it had been stranded but high water had been about 1900 hrs the previous evening & it had been stormy all night. He gave Sue the impression he had “lifted and moved” the animal on his own so we assumed it was a Harbour Porpoise. When I phoned him for directions he confirmed it had a long beak so I then obviously realised it was probably a small dolphin. I loaded my Medic box of veterinary goodies (KY Jelly etc) plus my 2 backpacks into the car & set off for Whitsand Bay. When I arrived at the small layby I was greeted by what we northerners call “a lazy wind” ie it goes through you & not round. Being so far from the beach I decided I could only take one backpack with my undersuit & dry suit, syringes & drugs, gloves etc. It was a good 20 minute walk down the steep path & along the beach where I met Medic Janine Badcock from Downderry & Coastguard Mark Cooper and 3 of his colleagues. The "patient" turned out to be a small Common Dolphin between 1.5 & 1.75 meters length. Janine had checked the breathing at 6 per minute & I was able to confirm this. The dolphin had a few marks on it (which experienced Medic Dan Jarvis from Hayle thought were dolphin rake marks when I described them to him later) but it had no other injuries other than superficial abrasions on the beak & fins. The body condition was moderate with the lumbar muscles becoming flat.

At this stage the coastguards were concerned about the conditions ie wind about force 6-7 with intermittent rain and hail, high water in 5 hours together with the fact that the sea in the vicinity was known for its strong undertow & riptides. I'm beginning to learn that some beaches here are not safely accessible during the 3 or 4 hours before & after high water. They got my attention by telling me of an incident in the same spot when 3 children had been dragged out to sea - they were saved but the coastguard were unable to resuscitate their mother who’d gone in after them. I readily agreed that they had full control in the health & safety department and they advised that any rescue should perhaps be done ASAP. I then decided to try a refloat to assess further the dolphin's stability & ability to swim. Having left my tarpaulin in backpack number 2 up in my car we had to improvise- the 4 coastguard lifejackets were donned by myself & 3 CG guys so we couldn’t use those, so in the end we linked hands & we carried the dolphin into the sea. As soon as we got knee deep I was surprised by the power of the undertow & understood the CG insistence that we didn’t go more than midthigh depth. When we lowered it into the shallows, the dolphin was disorientated from the stranding & unable to remain upright, so we supported it for 10 to 15 minutes. We then let it go & persuaded it to go seawards - I had concerns about the surf, but unfortunately transfer to a calmer beach was not an option- the walk up from the beach to the road was too difficult & approach to the beach by RIB was impossible in the conditions. It tried to come back a few times but we formed a line and eventually it began swimming along the surf looking stronger & breathing 4 to 6 times pm. At this time (about 1530) as Dan Jarvis arrived to help, the wind & tide were taking it east towards Rame Head, and we began to follow it along the beach. But as we got near the bottom of the cliff path the CG advised that to continue along the beach would put us at risk of being cut off. So we climbed up the steep path, keeping the dolphin in view for as long as possible. One of our group with excellent vision was able to see the dolphin going further out into the surf so we were hopeful it wasn’t coming back in. We decided to go back to the cars & drive further east to near the west side of Rame Head to try & spot the dolphin (from the side of the road at SX422498). After searching with binoculars for 10- 15 minutes, we decided to call it a day at about 1700 & I arranged to return the next morning after high water.

On Friday the 17th I arrived at Rame Head about 10.00 & made my way down the precarious path to the rocky beach. The wind was a little less than the previous day but it still rained heavily. There were many nooks & crannies, enough to hide a dozen dolphins, but I had a clamber about for an hour, working my way west then back. I then went back to Tregonhawke & made my way back down to the beach there again looking for gull activity- that led me to 2 dead dolphins both tagged by Cornwall Wildlife Trust volunteers & obviously long dead. After about 90 minutes searching the beach & rocks around the site of the stranding I returned up the steep path to my car, where I raided my backpack supply of choccie bars normally reserved for hungry medics (see how we co-ordinators think about you!). Fingers crossed it doesn't come back in.

Thanks to Danny Sharrard who reported the dolphin to Falmouth CG who then contacted Sue at head office.

Many thanks to James Barnett Veterinary Director for being available for advice. Thanks to Janine Badcock who helped to assess then carry the dolphin- it was her first stranding & she did well. Many thanks to Coastguard Mark Cooper & his colleagues for their help in carrying the dolphin, for supplying lifejackets, and for keeping us safe in the sea. Many thanks to experienced medic Dan Jarvis for help & moral support (this was my first "solo" stranding as SE Cornwall Co-ordinator). And as always, many thanks to Dave Jarvis West Cornwall Co-ordinator for being available on the phone for advice & support. Also thanks to those whose names I didn't record, for offering help, keeping an eye on our gear while we were involved with the rescue.

Lessons learned- in no particular order:

Try & get local advice & knowledge and listen to it. Especially from CG & RNLI. Human safety comes above that of the animal.

After using your camera, put it in a plastic bag, then another plastic bag then fasten it securely in your backpack- because a strong wind will blow it over into the sand and salt water- that’s the reason I've not got pictures of this dolphin.

In the excitement, try to remember to sex the animal- while we had the opportunity to do this when it rolled about in the sea at first, we were more concerned about holding it so it could breathe. Also try and shock James Barnett by filling in a MARC record form! This really needs you to delegate someone not physically involved in the rescue & who can write legibly in wind & rain. Sorry James- I promise to do it next time.

When talking to the press, be as helpful as possible but don’t overburden them with information. When the man from the Western Morning News specifically asked for the names of those carrying the dolphin, I made sure he got them right and wrote down that BDMLR were involved & very much assisted by the coastguard. The headline? "Holiday maker in miraculous dolphin rescue". No mention of BDMLR- I tried- honestly!

It’s been an interesting year so far- watching the "London Whale" on TV up north while holding my 3 day old grandson, the privilege of being asked to help with the "Maryport Bottlenose" (a day I will never forget), and now this dolphin.

Darryl Thorpe
BDMLR Marine Mammal Medic & Vet