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


2006-09-22 12:27:21

Humpback Whale in the Humber - a personal account

At just after nine last night (September 22nd) my daughter Catherine and I received a message : 'a pilot whale trapped between The Pride Of Hull and King George Dock side – all hands please.' This raised two immediate questions in our minds : the Pride of Hull sails past my window every night en route to Rotterdam and it sails at nine, so presumably would have already gone, and secondly, it's too big to get into the dock so moors at the riverside quay, so wherever the whale was, if it was anywhere near the ferry it certainly wasn’t in the dock. So we grabbed our things (neither of us owns a dry suit unfortunately) and set off to see what was actually going on. Living only ten minutes from the dock we were the amongst the first on the scene – Joel, Freddie and Ian arrived at the same time and Alan only minutes later – and went to the ferry terminal. Sure enough, the Pride of Hull was sailing away up the river and there was no sign of a whale. Whilst we were looking around and deciding where to look next, an ABP worker arrived and showed us where the whale was : trapped and rapidly stranding by the falling tide behind the huge concrete jetty, in a narrow channel which was narrowing by the minute. It was also not a Pilot but a Humpback whale, around 30 feet long, 10 tons or so and trapped in an impossibly difficult position. We rigged up ropes so we could scramble down (and back up) the slippery concrete slope and set about covering the whale with sheets and keeping it wet as the tide steadily receded. Other Medics began to arrive and as the whale was left high and dry, we continued with the task of keeping it wet and calm. We soon realised that for some reason we will never know, it was calmer when Catherine sat by its head, where it could see her, stroked it and talked to it, so she was allocated that task.

Low tide was just after midnight … we had no chance of refloating the whale until around five in the morning, so we settled down for the long haul. The Fire Brigade came and were of enormous help when the tide retreated too far for us to reach water with buckets – they simply set up a hosepipe for us – and the Humber Rescue boat came and stood by in case any of us got into difficulties. By 2 a.m., with the whale well and truly high and dry, we had four vets on scene and they assessed it, took and analysed blood samples, declared it viable and decided against euthanasia so we began to set our refloatation plans in action. Pontoons were already en-route - it was going to be horrendously difficult but we were going to give it a try. All the while I had been monitoring the whale’s respiration and I suddenly realised that it had taken control of the situation. It simply looked at Catherine one last time, and stopped breathing. The vets declared it dead at 2.25 a.m.

We were all heartbroken. To be in such close contact with such a creature is an amazing experience, and it was so sad we couldn't save it.

In the cold light of day we realise it was never likely to survive : it was out of the water, on concrete, with its full weight crushing down in it, for nearly six hours, and it simply shouldn't have been there in the first place : we were all aware that there must have been something desperately wrong. The harbourmaster also told us afterwards, when we knew that we weren’t going to have to attempt a rescue, that he could have had to veto it on health and safety grounds, as he was of the opinion that it could prove far too dangerous – there was a 7 foot swell on the river already, a 5-knot incoming 9 metre spring tide and rising winds from the tail end of Hurricane Gordon fast approaching, all of which would have endangered the medics: it was maybe just as well that he was never put in the position of having to make that call.

On a final note, it was very gratifying to see just how many people were there giving all the help they could and although we were unable to save this particular whale, it wasn’t for the want of trying.

I don't know the names of everyone who was there but our grateful thanks go to our local coordinator Alan and Medics Catherine, Adele, Emma, Marnie, Ian, Freddie, Joel (and Joel jnr, who although not a medic himself did sterling work fetching and carrying), Bev and Simon plus many other medics whose names I don’t know, the four vets from Swanbridge Veterinary Hospital, the Humberside Fire Brigade who saw it out till the bitter end, Humber Rescue, representatives of the Coastguards and the Environment Agency (sorry, I forget your names too) and of course the staff from ABP and the harbourmaster of King George Dock. Anyone I’ve left off – sorry, and thank you too!

Dianne Davies
BDMLR volunteer & Marine Mammal Medic