British Divers Marine Life Rescue
British Divers Marine Rescue
2008-08-01 15:13:26

Northern Bottlenose Whale Stranding at Hayling Island, Hampshire

Bottlenose whale strandingA whale was reported to BDMLR HQ on Thursday morning (31st July). I was off on my way to a funeral and had to leave Sue White in the office on her own. The report was of an 8 metre long whale swimming in Chichester Harbour, which is the natural harbour down the eastern side of Hayling Island, on the Sussex Hampshire border. The whale had been spotted up by Langstone Bridge at the very northern end of the island.

Jason Carter will be submitting a report on BDMLR’s attempt to encourage the whale out on the Thursday.

On my return late evening I found Stephen Marsh helping Sue in the office co-ordinating an attempt to guide the whale out of Chichester Harbour. As the light failed the boat crews lead by Kent Co-ordinator Jason Carter with the help of Isle of Wight Co-ordinator Dave Evans and Hampshire Co-ordinator Clare Stares, had no option but to return to the marina.

Stephen Marsh and I left BDMLR HQ at about 9.30pm on Thursday evening to drive down to Sussex & Surrey’s Ast Co-ordintor Charlie and Neil Sampson near Chichester. We had a brief run down of the situation in preparation for the morning. As low tide was at about 6am, it was essential to get teams searching for the whale and check to see if it had stranded during the darkness as the tide receded.

A group of 18 medics gather at Northney Marina on the northern edge of Hayling Island at 4.30am. The medics were briefed and divided into two land based teams and two boat based teams with a reserve team based at the marina to respond as back up. Stephen Marsh co-ordinated the Boat teams and Charlie Sampson and I co-ordinated the land based teams.

Just before 6am one of the land based teams discovered the whale stranded on mud flats on the northern side of the channel just east of Langstone road bridge. I arrived to find an 80 metre stretch of mud between the sea wall and the whale. Although the ground was fairly firm close to the sea wall the mud was very soft further out. It was decided that it was too dangerous to attempt to get a rescue team to the whale without the assistance of the Fire & Rescue Service. One of their local animal rescue specialist attended on site and arranged for mud rescue platforms and a water pump to get water to the animal.

Bottlenose whale stranding locationIt was not long before a water pump was pumping water to the whale but medics were unable to get close enough to properly wet the animal or evaluate the whales condition. A specialist rescue vehicle arrived and mud platforms were used to get medics closer to the animal. It was now possible to spray the whale with water. This unfortunately created another problem. The water being sprayed on the whale was building up around the whale, as the whale was on its side this threatened to cause the animal to drown.

Further fire vehicles arrived bringing 6 more 10metre long mud platforms. These provided an amazingly safe working environment in what was an extremely hazardous location. Only limited equipment could be taken out to the animal as anything which was placed on the ground soon became covered in mud an if not careful disappeared into the mud.

Due to the location of the stranding it was clear that the whale had probably been stranded since at least 3am. Using the new large cetacean triage it was viewed that we would set a limit of 10am when we would reach the critical time limit of the whale having been stranded for too long and irreversible internal damage having been caused.

Vet Richard Edwards was called and was collect from the ferry terminal after being on holiday on the Isle of Wight. BDMLR Veterinary Consultant James Barnett was phoned and the situation discussed with him. Dr Paul Jepson from the Zoological Society of London was also rung and his veterinary team mobilised. Once on sight Richard set about taking blood samples from the dorsal fin due to the whale being on its side and being too dangerous to take bloods from the tail.

Yet again, the lumber muscle of these large whales did not give an accurate impression of the animals health. The whale stayed relatively calm throughout most of the stranding, apart from a couple of occasions as attempts were made to right him. Breath rates stayed around 3 -5 breaths per minute and the animal seemed calm. Those who had not dealt with an animal of this size before were surprised at how difficult it was to right the animal.

The whale had stranded partially on a fairly solid mud flat with vegetation and partially on very soft mud. Although to us rescuers the mud seemed extremely soft anyway. It was not until the Fire team attempted to use a high pressure hose to liquefy the mud that we realised how solid the mud was in places. Crews concentrated on the left hand side of the whale in an attempt to right the whale, but this seemed to have little affect. The volume of water being used certainly helped to clear the very soft mud and started washing away a channel to a nearby gully which by 9.30am was starting to fill with water from the incoming tide.

A curved lance used by the fire service to get strops under horses stuck in ditches was used to get strops under the whale in an attempt to right the whale but the animal was just too large and too heavy. However we were able to get the pontoon stretcher pulled under the whale using the strops but we were unable to get the inflation tubes low enough down to lift the whale. Time was running out too rapidly and water was coming in around the animal.

The Fire Brigades specialist animal rescue crew and myself took the decision to pull teams off the whale leaving a skeleton crew on a mud platform to attempt to get pontoons onto the whale. Two safety boats were on standby to assist medics and canoes were made available.

Vet Richard Edwards and a small team of medics stayed with the whale. The water started to stress the whale as it lay on its side and medics thought the whale was going to drown. Due to the time and tide state Richard decided that it may be best to euthanase the animal but the water rushed in much quicker than was expected, making it too dangerous to inject the whale.

A pontoon was used to try and lift the head up to help it breath. Luckily as the water flooded in around the whale it became more lively and medics backed off to canoes, safety boats or stayed on the mud rescue platform for safety. This was only possible due to the calm water state, if the weather had been more rough this would not have been possible and medics would have been pulled away much sooner.

Eventually the water started to thrash around to right himself and swan free from the pontoons circled round obviously in shallow water pushing itself over mud flats.

A canoe had to collect keys from myself in order to rescue my ambulance which was on the beach before it was flooded. And Richard also had to move his vehicle too.

After an hour the whale was in enough water to be free swimming and boats had to continue monitoring the whale as it swan off. I was taken back to shore to address teams on the shore and find out the results of the blood tests. These unfortunately showed that the whale had kidney failure.

Tired medics did a brilliant job cleaning and returning all the gear to my van, whilst I spoke to the press with Paul Jepson from ZSL. As the whale moved under Langstone bridge to the western side of Hayling island, the crowds of people started moving round the coast with it. It was followed by the monitoring boat and I left Paul dealing with interviews about the whales blood tests and veterinary state. For over an hour I spent time talking to the crowds of people who had not seen the TV or radio news to keep them informed of the blood test results and state of the whale. Out of the hundreds of people present only one person had anything negative to say.

The coastguard eventually informed us of the whale having been spotted on a sandbank called East Winner about half a mile off shore. The whale was stranded on sand rather than mud this time with people around it. A four man vet team decided to walk out to euthanase the whale. At this point the BDMLR team was stood down. We were informed at about 6.30pm that the whale had died.

I would like to express my thanks and that of BDMLR to Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service, Vet Richard Edwards, Paul Jepson and the ZSL team, Solent Coastguard, the local RNLI crews, Northney Marina as well as all the BDMLR medics who were involved. Also a big thank you to the back-up provided by Sue White in the office who was also trying to deal with 5 other seal rescues and a dead dolphin reported through the day too, plus Faye Archell and Jason Carter for helping deal with media calls too.

This has been the hardest stranding I have ever attended and this took place in exceptionally difficult conditions working on mud which really limited our ability to undertake our job properly. All the medics involved worked exceptional hard in difficult circumstances.

Trevor Weeks
National Co-ordinator
British Divers Marine Life Rescue