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

News

2013-06-19 23:48:21

A volunteer's first call out to entrapped whale

The following report is from Jan Storie about a first call for two volunteers to a cetacean rescue for BDMLR on 27/05/13

The email alert arrived on Sunday evening.  ‘ ….  If able to attend, rendezvous at the Uig ferry terminal Monday at 9am for transport to South Uist.’ This was it.  My first cetacean callout. In that moment I felt every emotion possible from concern for the animal and worry about my own abilities to the nervous excitement of a wobbly tummy. I checked my calendar.  Diary sorted, Husband sorted, Dog sorted, transport sorted. I could go. Now packing!  Hmm! Not my forte!  My advice?  Keep that Grab Bag handy! Loads of questions raced through my head: Would it be very cold?  Would I be away for a few days? Would I be sleeping on a floor somewhere?  Would I be sleeping at all?

After a stop in Kyleakin to pick up fellow first-timer, BDMLR Medic Alasdair Munro, we were on our way. Any worries we may have had soon evaporated when we met up with Ali Jack, our team leader, at Uig. His organisational skills, calm manner and wealth of experience soon became apparent. It was reassuring to be working alongside him on this first incident.   Ali had driven straight from a training session in Dundee the day before with the Command Incident Unit Trailer in tow and had all the gear aboard. The ferry crossing to Lochmaddy allowed us all to fuel up and get briefed on the situation by Ali. A Long Finned Pilot Whale had been spotted off the inner Southern shore of Loch Baghasdail on Friday, and under the watchful eye of local medics it managed to free itself from the muddy bank. However, it remained in the area, seemingly unable to navigate out of the shallow lagoon it was in through a very narrow exit.  Further help was needed to usher it out into deeper water.

Our first task was to set up the Incident Command Unit at an appropriate spot. Driving along the Strome road to the South of Loch Baghasdail we could see the whale. We found a suitable location from where we could observe and also begin to organise the practical aspects of the operation. It was nearly low tide when we arrived and the whale was swimming in circles in shallow water in what was, in effect, a rock-bound lagoon. At this point it was not possible for Ali to assess the condition of the animal close to, all we could do was observe from a distance. From the swimming pattern it seemed that the animal was looking for a way out but the rocks must have appeared a continuous barrier to it.  The whale needed our help to navigate out of the loch as soon as possible.

Local knowledge is the key to any operation and it wasn’t long before we were making contacts and information was coming in.  We needed to speak to someone who could tell us more about the Loch and also contact people who might be able to provide boats and skippers.  The local community were both helpful and concerned about the animal and went out of their way to help.

It was decided that the best course of action was to assemble a number of boats at 7pm to shepherd the whale out into the Sea of the Hebrides.  Ali Jack and myself were to be on board two of the boats whilst Alastair Munro was to man the Incident Command Unit on shore, monitoring and co-ordinating communications and keeping everyone informed of the situation as it developed.

With back up from RIBs and Crew from the Marine Protection Vessel Hirta which stood off towards the mouth of the Loch, we had the use of three shallow-draught fish farm boats (and lots of local knowledge) to navigate into the shallow area at the head of the loch. High tide was at 7.30p.m. so time was of the essence. As we set off from Lochboisdale we were unsure whether we would be able to shepherd the animal out but knew that it really was now or never.  One of the risks of such an operation is that the animal may re-strand but, as he would not survive where he was for long, this was the best option and his best chance.

Stealthily, we made our way up the Loch. Approaching the whale from behind we began shepherding him out. The high tide meant that the animal could get out of the rock-edged lagoon but he could not see that, as his echo-location would only have shown rocks all around with no clear exit route.  We had to persuade him to take a zigzag course, thus avoiding the rocks and allowing him to escape into deeper water.  It was not an easy task.  He kept on wanting to turn, but with three boats we were able to block his return. The water at last became deeper and at one point we thought that we were succeeding in our plan but suddenly the whale turned right and swam into a small rocky bay, stranding again.

Cautiously we approached.  He was tiring.  This was probably the lowest point of the exercise for everyone.  Ali went into the water to see what could be done and also to take a closer look for injuries and any signs of why the whale might have stranded in the first place. Ali found that one of the pectoral fins was snagged between the rocks so the whale couldn’t free itself.  I went in to assist Ali as he tried to release it. While supporting the animal I started stroking and talking to the whale in order to reassure it.  Once released, the whale slid back into deeper water. It seemed to me then that his demeanour had changed.  Tired, he lay alongside, his breathing deep but more regular and calmer.

The whale seemed in reasonable condition, not emaciated, but he did have cuts to his right shoulder and pectoral fin. I noticed some old rake marks on his back too.  He was a large male probably nearly 20 feet in length and about 3.5 tons in weight. The tide was going down though and he was not yet out of danger. Would this be as much as we could do? We had to decide what was best for the animal and it seemed that letting him gather his strength was the best option initially. Ali and I watched and waited, listening to the whale’s rhythmic breathing.  After a few minutes we moved the boat back slowly and the whale began to take notice.  Calmly he surfaced and swam in a circular motion twice in front of us. Then, as we started to gently usher him towards the mouth of the Loch he seemed to understand what we were trying to do.

As we passed the next small headland the seabed dropped away and he was in 30m or more of water. Sensing there were no restrictions now he started to pick up speed.  He was in the middle of the Loch and heading for the Sea of the Hebrides, keeping a straight course and travelling well, with even, measured and purposeful movements, all well aligned.  I think he knew he was safe. We slowed to a halt and watched as he headed out, away from us, showing little sign of tiredness or illness.  I kept watching and willing him on until he disappeared into the distant waves. He was gone.

Meanwhile, Alasdair had had a very busy time in the Incident Unit, keeping everyone up to date, relaying information to all involved and also liaising with members of the Public who came along to hear how things were going and to offer their help. In fact the Unit became a real focus for concerned local people and they were able to feel part of the operation as they listened to the radio communications and experienced the highs and the lows of the operation as it happened.

The light was beginning to fade as the boats headed back into Lochboisdale, We were  feeling relieved, and grateful too for the help and assistance of all in the area. There are too many names to mention but a very special thank you to Andy and Janet Biddles for their amazing support and very generous hospitality (Andy also reported the stranding to us), Marine Harvest for  the use of their boats and very knowledgeable and determined skippers, the Marine Protection Vessel Hirta and its crew for providing support and Neil Campbell for sorting our electrics. There were many others too who gave us their time, their information, who lent us things and were so interested in what we were doing. Thanks to all.

It’s strange that when you train as a British Divers Marine Life Medic the one thing that you hope is that you are never needed … but when you are, you hope you rise to the challenge.  However, as we were packing up I couldn’t quite believe that I’d been part of all this. It was surreal.  One minute I was listening to Jessie J and doing the ironing and the next I was donning drysuit, lifejacket and helmet and rescuing a Whale.  Life doesn’t get more rewarding than that. The elation I felt cannot be put into words, tears maybe, but not words.

What an experience. What a privilege. To see such a wonderful creature at close quarters, to make contact, to glimpse another world, his world, and to be able to help in returning him to the open sea is an emotional roller coaster, the memory of which will stay with me for ever …. and every now and then I find myself staring out to sea and wondering, just wondering …...

Jan Storie
BDMLR Medic Highland

Many thanks to all who provided assistance and attended this successful operation.