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


2006-04-22 14:09:09

Large-scale operation swings into action to retrieve freshly dead bottlenose dolphin from the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall

At around 1330hrs on Friday 21st, Cornwall Wildlife Trust Marine Strandings Network ( volunteer Dave Jarvis was contacted by the Strandings Network hotline coordinator Maddie Precious regarding a dead bottlenose dolphin on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly. Maddie needed to find a contact on the Isles who would be able to take photos for a positive ID confirmation by Paul Jepson at the Natural History Museum, who wanted the body for a Post Mortem examination due to the apparent very fresh condition of the carcass and the very infrequent occurrence of this event. Fortunately Dave was able to get his contact on the Scillies, David McBride, to take some photos immediately and email them out for identification.

A little later in the afternoon it was confirmed to be an adult bottlenose dolphin of approximately 11ft length and in good condition. As the Isles currently have only a small handful of volunteers trained to record dead marine life washed up on their shores, Paul Jepson agreed to fund a number of spaces on the Isles of Scilly passenger ferry MV Scillonian III for MSN volunteers to go out and help record and remove the body. Plans were made to have six volunteers go out the following morning to either get the body back to the mainland or at least take samples within the 4 hour time window before the ferry left (and therefore stranding the volunteers until Monday evening if they did not get back in time!). Caroline Curtis, Gary Hawkins, Dan Jarvis, Tim Bain, Tamara Cooper and Chris Ellis agreed to attend. For the rest of the evening of the 21st, Dave, Maddie, Caroline and Dan organised volunteers, places on the ferry, and other logistics on the island with David, and Tristan (IoS Wildlife Trust) in preparation for the next day's operation.

At 0830 on the 22nd, the team met at the harbour office in Penzance and received confirmation the carcass was still on the beach and they soon set sail on Scillonian III. During the journey, David and IoS Councillor Ralph Banfield assessed the stranding location, Watermill Bay, for landward removal, and decided that it would be impossible with an animal of such size and weight. As the team on the ferry made landfall and piled into the taxi booked by David, a boat was in the process of being organised to tow the body to the harbour instead. The taxi driver was extremely helpful in tracking one down for us and as they walked down the track into Watermill Cove Gary had confirmation of not one but two boats available to help! As we only needed one boat, the other was stood down.

In the cove, the team met David, Tristan and a couple of the IoSWT volunteers, and Steve and Pam Manning, the original reporters of the body. It was given a brief inspection and in-situ photos were taken before anything else was done. It was almost high tide at this point but the body was right on the edge of the tide line, meaning it would have to be manhandled off the rocks and into the sea, rather than waiting for the sea to do the work for us. With the help of Pam, a couple of wooden planks were found to be used as levers to help get the body over the rocks, while a rope was tied around the tail stock. Mark and Susie Groves arrived with a boat, and Mark rowed inshore in a tender to collect the other end of the rope to be secured to the RIB. As a land-based removal was originally planned, nobody present had a wet or drysuit to hand to go in the water and get the carcass clear of the submerged rocks! Going back into town would mean missing high tide (the best and only time the body could have been refloated), so Dan volunteered to go in! At the point of high tide a mixture or pushing, pulling, dragging and lifting were used to get the carcass out of the cove and on its way to the harbour.

Caroline and Dan hitched a lift back to the harbour with David to organise using the crane on Scillonian III to winch the body from the water and on to the quayside for more detailed examination, while the others waited for the taxi to return. Caroline spoke with the Captain who very obligingly allowed us to use the crane while Dan boarded Mark and Susie’s RIB to help them secure it to the strops. The safest and easiest way to do this was to tie a strop around the tail stock and lift it tail first across the deck of Scillonian and on to some wooden pallets on the pier. So the dolphin was duly hoisted from the water and laid down on the quay. By this time the rest of the team had arrived and so began the examination. The dolphin was confirmed to be about 3.2m in length, female, with both fresh and old rake marks (scratches from other dolphins' teeth), caused by other bottlenose dolphins based on the spacing of the marks. Apart from that there appeared to be nothing particularly unusual to indicate cause of death, as there were no obvious bycatch or propeller injuries. After this part of the operation was done - just over three hours since landing – the body was again winched up so it was just off the ground so that a large tarpaulin could be laid underneath and a body bag placed over the head. Once this was done the body was lowered so it could be wrapped up properly and secured with gaffer tape. Dave, Maddie and Paul were updated on progress at this point. With only twenty minutes left on the clock the team went into town to find some much needed refreshments before sailing back to Penzance!

The team arrived back at Penzance harbour at around 1900hrs and were met by Dave and Lesley Jarvis, Maddie Precious, Nick Tregenza and Simon Bone. The Scillonian crew winched the dolphin for the final time directly into the awaiting trailer for transport to Veterinary Laboratory Agency Polwhele near Truro where a post mortem investigation could be carried out. Gary, Caroline, Dave, Lesley, Dan, Tim and Maddie were met at Polwhele by Nick Davidson who had come in especially to get the carcass into storage at the centre to prevent further decomposition until Monday morning when the examination would take place. The trailer was backed up close to the door, the dolphin dragged inside, and then briefly inspected externally by Nick.

After all their hard work, Gary, Caroline, Tim, Dave, Lesley and Dan went to the nearest Pizza Hut for a well-earned rest and bite to eat!

A big well done to everyone who took part in this large operation which has not been carried out down here previously, so it was a good learning experience for future events of this type. Thank you to all the following for all their help: Paul Jepson (NHM); Nick Davidson (VLA Polwhele); David McBride (IoS contact); Mark and Susie Groves (RIB operators); Tristan and his volunteers (IoSWT); Ralph Banfield (IoS Council member); the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company; the Captain and crew of Scillonian III; the quayside hands at St Mary’s and Penzance; Steve and Pam Manning (reporters of the carcass); Maddie Precious (CWT SN hotline coordinator); Dave, Lesley and Dan Jarvis, Caroline Curtis, Gary Hawkins, Tim Bain, Tamara Cooper, Chris Ellis, Nick Tregenza, Simon Bone (CWT SN volunteers).

Dan Jarvis
Volunteer, Strandings Network
Cornwall Wildlife Trust