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


2012-08-09 13:53:57

Minke whale calf coaxed out of harbour on Harris

A young minke whale has been successfully herded out of a confined harbour at Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris, in an operation led by British Divers Marine Life Rescue.

The animal, reported as around 14ft (4.2metres) long had been trapped in shallow water in an enclosed area adjacent to the ferry harbour since entering on a Spring tide on Monday.  Although other rescue organisations were aware of it, BDMLR were only informed on Tuesday when a concerned member of the public called the charity's rescue line.  As the tide was not suitable for a rescue attempt and the young whale seemed to be in good health, it was agreed that observation only would be the best option for that night.

On Wednesday, senior BDMLR medic Sandy MacDonald from Stornoway arrived on the scene on Wednesday to assess the situation and began planning a rescue attempt.  The calf had been seen to respond to kayakers in the area and also to female voices.  Being young, it was naturally curious and it was hoped that on Wednesday evening, with the help of local kayakers, the calf would be coaxed out of the shallows through a narrow inlet to deeper water.  There had been reports of a larger animal, quite possibly the calf's mother, about a mile offshore further south.

Unfortunately this first plan was thwarted by a local boat owner thinking that he could frighten it out of the shallows by powering back and forth.  This was not part of BDMLR's intention as it is always important not to stress whales unnecessarily.

By Thursday, Sandy had been able to gather a large team of locals who were willing to help.  Having scouted the shores, she had identified potential stranding areas and would place volunteers in position to keep the young whale away from them.  A team of kayakers, boaters and surfers would move towards the calf to gently encourage it towards freedom, while others blocked its route towards the islets south of the area.

The plan worked well and after a bit of cat and mouse, the team funnelled the whale through the narrow channel out into the main ferry harbour and then out to the open water round a second breakwater.

Whenever a boat engine started up, the whale would show slight signs of agitation, so no boats were used in the end although local boat owners had kindly offered help.  Under Sandy's guidance, kayakers, surfers and swimmers coaxed the animal out, having found that if they approached it, then it would move away, but as soon as they ignored it, it would return to them.  Its positive reaction to female voices had been noted, so this was used to pull the whale towards the gap between the breakwater and jetty.

Once through the opening, the young whale, that may still have been maternally dependent (and certainly socially dependent), swam strongly and confidently towards the deeper channel and out to open water.

This was an excellent rescue with a well thought out and executed plan.  We hope that the young whale will be fine now but our fingers are still crossed that it reaches safe waters with its mother.  There is no doubt that without this effective action, the animal's condition would have deteriorated well before the next Spring tide brought higher waters to release it.

BDMLR would like to express their heart-felt gratitude to Sandy MacDonald, other BDMLR volunteers and the 60-70 members of the public and other organisations who turned out to help.

Please note there are currently no photos of the rescue available but that these will be posted in the next day. See a video report from STV here.

Stephen Marsh
BDMLR Operations Manager


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