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


2009-01-09 19:19:15

Whale rescue in Fethiye, Turkey

On Friday evening I received a call from Laura at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society explaining that a whale was in trouble in Turkey. I immediately phoned the number in Turkey to give some advice. I then phoned James Barnett who took up the challenge of trying to identify the whale on the phone and give advice for its possible rescue.

I am delighted to say that the rescue was successful and the whale was release into deeper water. Jane Tuna from Turkey sent this report and photos.

Alan Knight

Whale rescue in FethiyeHow many people living in Fethiye expect to receive a phone call late on a Friday afternoon telling them that there is a dolphin that needs to be rescued from the shipyard? And how many arrive at the sighting to discover that there is indeed a large (4.5 metre) mammal but it is not a dolphin but a whale?

This happened to Fethiye's resident marine biologist Meryem Tekin on January 9th 2009 and as the darkness fell, she donned her wet suit and boots to examine the new arrival. The large, grey creature was wallowing in the shallows, underneath the hulks of yachts and gulets and surrounded by the paraphernalia expected in an industrial area. Not the most accessible place to do a full examination and to instigate a rescue.

The local Zabita or Municipal Policing Authority had said it was a dolphin and the crowds of people (men) assembled to watch the event, insisted it was a dolphin but Tekin knew better. Although at that stage she was not able to identify the species, she knew full well that the size, position of the dorsal fin, width of the tail and the shape of the eyes meant that this was no 'flipper' but rather a whale.

Later that evening, with the help of organisations and individuals from Turkey and Europe, together with the massive data base of Google, it was suggested that it was a female adult Sowerby's Beaked Whale. A species of which little is known owing to their intensely private nature, with the result that there is little or no available research. But this was a fairly wild guess owing to the position of the whale and the enveloping gloom of the shipyard.

The darkness made it difficult to take photographs and not wishing to disturb the guest, torch light was kept to a minimum. As various local officials turned up to see what was going on, mobile phones became white hot as calls were made to various contacts active in the environmental scene. Vets, expert in their field from the UK, members of conservation groups from Izmir and Ankara, people who maybe could pull strings with the local authorities; all were asked to do what they could or offer advice. All were more than happy to help.

The Coast Guard sent a Zodiac boat with two young and enthusiastic crew, the local fishermen offered their boats. The crowd grew and in the darkness there could be heard a hum of expectation. Meryem and her helpers had to come up with a plan to get the whale out of the diesel covered water. A suggestion was made to tie a rope around its tail and tow it out but thankfully for the whale that idea was quickly squashed.

The problem is that no facilities are available in Fethiye for rescuing or rehabilitating a large sea mammal…or a small one come to that. A Dolphin therapy and research centre in Marmaris, run by Alex... and his son offered to drive over with a cradle which although on the small side - normally it was used for dolphins - was better than nothing. Marmaris is at least a two hour drive from Fethiye so time became of the essence.

Whale rescue in FethiyeBy this time two things had happened. Tekin was getting a large amount of gratuitous suggestions for the crowd, various experts were calling with more sage advice and the whale was becoming distressed due to the diesel slick. Finally, the whale turned of its own accord and diving, swam out into the cleaner water of the bay. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and most of the crowd disappeared. It was 11.40pm and it was cold. However, the whale didn't go far. It once again swung back into the shipyard but thankfully it found a patch of cleaner water with less dangerous debris. The Marmaris team arrived and it was decided to leave it where it was for the rest of the night with the two coast guards protecting it.

At 7am the following morning the team (and the crowd) once again found themselves staring at the whale, wondering what to do. The cradle was ready, the diving team had put on their wetsuits and it was a case of attempting to encourage the 1 tonne whale into the protective case that would enable it to be taken by boat out to sea.

The geography of the area, with the many coves and bays for which the Gulf of Fethiye is famous, resulted, or so the experts believe in confusing the whale; for although it was pointing out to sea there was a large mountain between it and freedom. Of course, there was a possibility that the animal was ill but checks suggested that it was healthy and well nourished.

The sonar used by whales and dolphins could have been damaged by a loud noise (dynamiting fish?) or a passing submarine but the authorities insisted that there were none in the area. Therefore the only plan was to take the whale by boat out, past the small islands and bays, releasing it in open waters. The coast guard and passing boasts would then be vigilant during the course of the following few days to see if the whale had once again stranded itself. Sadly, if this is the case, the possibility of damage to its sonar, or illness would be a strong likelihood.

At 2pm or thereabouts the whale was wrestled into place by an international (and rather argumentative) team and the cradle was lashed to the side of Tekin's dive boat. The Marmaris experts and some local environmentalists stayed on the boat while the dive team stayed with the whale in the water. The crowd waved them off and went on their way. The boat party disappeared around the head land, passed Letoonia Holiday Village and after about an hour let the magnificent whale slip into the water. She surfaced twice before diving into the deep waters of the gulf. It is yet to be seen whether she has found her freedom, her 'school' (if indeed she ever had one) and her life.

Tekin and her team should be praised for their sterling and unstinting efforts. Tekin spent the best part of 20 hours in the water and both she and the local dive team risked injury and hyperthermia doing what they consider to be their duty to the marine environment. Without the necessary and urgently needed local rehabilitation resources they took responsibility, with the help of other passionate and knowledgeable individuals and did their utmost to save a rare and precious mammal. It is now the turn of the government to do their share and ensure that this kind of rescue is backed up with urgently needed resources in Fethiye.