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


2005-06-03 13:40:30

Striped dolphin rescue attempt at Gwithian, Cornwall

Coordinator Tim Bain received a call from the local council at midday today, reporting a live stranded dolphin at Gwithian, Hayle. Tim called myself, as Coordinator Dave Jarvis was away, to attend immediately. Quickly grabbing some basic equipment, I drove the few minutes to Gwithian. I liased with the nearby lifeguards, who pointed out the stranding area from the cliff top, a few hundred yards back down the beach towards Hayle. Hitching a ride on their quad bike, we raced through the rain down the beach to the site. During this time, Dave, who was up-country, and Sue White at Head Office had started to call out Medics to the scene.

On arrival, the dolphin could be seen swimming in the water amongst the waves. The lifeguards there informed me that it was at least the fifth time that they had refloated the dolphin, and it had restranded each time. I advised them that if the dolphin restranded again, to bring it up on to the beach for a thorough assessment. In due course, the dolphin began to head back to the shore, and I was surprised to note that it was in fact a striped dolphin rather than the common dolphin that we get stranded so often. It was not listing in the water, but appeared to be having trouble getting past the waves. Once stranded, we used the body board attachment from the lifeguard’s jet ski to carry the dolphin further up the beach away from the rapidly approaching tide. Once in a safe position, we set the dolphin down and substituted the board for a towel, as the lifeguards needed the board in case they needed to carry out any rescues themselves. We began timing the breathing rate of the animal, which was averaging between 6-10 breaths per minute (bpm) – stressed. To decrease stress, we dug holes for the pectoral fins to fit comfortably. However, the dolphin continued to thrash about, requiring three member of the public to help hold it upright on my request and under my supervision while I started to assess it’s condition. It appeared to be in moderate condition with superficial bleeding injuries to the dorsal fin, tail flukes and underside of the tail stock.

After just over half an hour, the animal’s stress slowly decreased, stabilising at around 6-8bpm, increasing slightly when we were forced to move it further away from the tide. I became also concerned that the location we were in would mean we would be cut off from any access except by sea as the sea moved closer to high tide. I decided to await the arrival of more Medics before attempting to move the dolphin a couple of hundred yards across the beach to the bottom of the steps to the lifeguard hut at Peter’s Point on the edge of Upton Towans. Shortly, Coordinator Tim Bain and Medics Sue Sayer and Mick Skelly arrived within a few minutes of each other, and between us we carried the dolphin along the beach to the much safer and suitable location. As luck would have it, the rain had stopped by now, and the sky across the bay was beginning to brighten up considerably.

After further stabilisation, we were joined by Medics Amanda Forman, Jo Hurley and Phil Jarvis. Amanda and Jo now swapped with myself and Sue, helping to care for the animal with Mick and Tim. Medics Caroline Curtis and Gary Hawkins were en route to the rescue trailer at Redruth, while experienced veterinary nurses Jenny and Claire from BDMLR consultant vet Paul Riley’s surgery were also on their way. With Medics Tamara Cooper, Chris Ellis (who both work at the National Seal Sanctuary) June Harden and Jane Bennett just arriving, Jo, Amanda and myself went back to the car park to collect more equipment and to commandeer some wind breaks from the nearby beach shop, as there was a breeze that was beginning to dry out the dolphin’s skin despite dousing with water. The sun was also now threatening put in an appearance. The windbreaks were erected around the dolphin to keep it out of the sun and wind, and more buckets arrived, which were distributed amongst the remaining Medics and some members of the public that were watching to fetch water. Claire and Jenny had now arrived. Sue took on the role of beachmaster – keeping the public informed of what was happening and advising and updating Medics of the situation.

By now it was 2pm, and the breathing rate refused to decrease below 6bpm. To keep the animal more comfortable until the dolphin pontoons arrived, we rolled up a tarpaulin and 5 Medics and the two vet nurses entered the still rising tide and supported it in shallow water to help re-establish equilibrium. The dolphin continued to thrash around, but the breathing rate did not drop. The dolphin pontoons arrived with Caroline a short while later, followed by Medic Rachael Vine (who also works at the National Seal Sanctuary) and South East Cornwall Coordinator and veterinary surgeon Darryl Thorpe. We moved the dolphin back to the water’s edge to attach the pontoons.

Once set up, Tim, Phil, Caroline, Chris, Tamara, June, Jenny, Claire and myself started the reflotation attempt. In consultation with Director and consultant veterinarian James Barnett, it had been decided that due to the number of previous refloat attempts made by the lifeguards, that only one attempt would be made now; otherwise we would be left with no other option but to euthanase. After half an hour of trying to fight our way past the breakers, the dolphin appeared to be regaining its strength, although it had never really stopped thrashing its tail, but its breathing rate had increased, eventually levelling out to around 15bpm. We removed the pontoons and held the dolphin before letting it go. The rest was now up to the dolphin.

For the next half hour, we kept up a human chain between the dolphin and the beach as it continued to swim back and forth parallel to the shore, occasionally moving further out. Unfortunately, trying to swim through the waves was taking its toll, and the dolphin could be seen beginning to struggle and lift its head high out of the water. Eventually it was washed into a submerged rock, and had to be subdued by Darryl, Tamara and Chris. The pontoons were reattached and option of euthanasia had to be taken. Claire, Jenny and Phil returned to the car park to bring back the appropriate equipment. Darryl, Tim, Chris, Tamara, Caroline and Rachael now held the dolphin in knee-high water to try to keep it calm and comfortable until they returned.

Several minutes later, they returned, and the dolphin was carried back up the beach. The windbreaks were erected around it for privacy while Jenny and Claire prepared and administered the lethal injection, supported by Caroline, Tim, Phil and Tamara. Caroline and myself liased with the Cornwall Wildlife Trust Strandings Coordinator Jan Loveridge about arrangements for Post Mortem and storage over the weekend. Our final task was to pack up the equipment, and carry the 2.07m long male dolphin several hundred yards back to the car park, where it was taken by Caroline for storage.

I would like to thank the lifeguards and members of the public who helped with this event, whom were invaluable to me in the initial 30 minutes of my arrival until more Medics were on the scene.

I would also like to thank and congratulate Sue White at Head Office and all Medics involved in this incident. Although this was not the outcome we were hoping for, I was very pleased with the effort, teamwork and dedication that everybody put in. This was a difficult and strenuous rescue attempt and I am proud of you all.

Medic Dan Jarvis
BDMLR West Cornwall
(Newquay - Land's End - St Austell)

It was gratifying and most encouraging to note that the way the team operated in such a professional manner given the location of the incident, i.e: a public beach, and the integration with other agencies involved such as Penwith District Council, the National Seal Sanctuary and Cornwall Wildlife Trust. I would like to personally thank all the Medics who were involved at the incident, together with the others who although aware of the incident, were unable to attend due to work commitments, but were kept informed of the ongoing situation with a view to attending if required later in the day.

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