Bottlenose dolphins rarely live-strand around the UK, but on Sunday 29th May 2016, one came in at Nigg, north of Inverness. This combined account is from Boonie and Kirsty, attending volunteers (Boonie's words are in italics).
Two members of the public who were on their way back down from Duncansby Head after looking for orca spotted a stranded BND in Nigg Bay. This was late afternoon, around 5pm. After a couple of hours (calls to police and SSPCA) they managed to get in touch with ourselves and a few of us headed out to assess the situation. On seeing it really was a bottlenose dolphin, thoughts weren't great as they rarely strand and if they do they tend to strand dead.
We had Andrew Brownlow come out from Scottish Marine Stranding-Scheme to assess the dolphin's condition before we made any decisions to refloat. The dolphin was badly blistered from the sun and has been stranded for quite a while with the incoming tide not until the early hours of the morning the next day.
We managed to get some photos to Barbara from the lighthouse who managed to ID the dolphin, a 4 year old calf who sticks quite tightly to its mother's side. The mother also has a calf around 1 year old. The dolphin was seen on Monday with no signs of illness or unusual behaviour. With it being part of our resident pod, having been recently seen and familiar with the area, it was decided we could attempt a refloat.
19:00 hrs. Having been texted about a dolphin stranding at Nigg by Corinne, who was on duty as the BDMLR out of hours coordinator, I called her and and was told there were medics on the scene already so not to worry. However at 21:00 hrs Corinne called me back to say the dolphin pontoons were required to re-float the dolphin. We loaded the van and collected the pontoons from the rescue trailer. Corinne had contacted Pippa Low and Simon Paterson from North 58 Sea Adventures who had some air cylinders we could use and they offered to take us across the Moray Firth in their RHIB as this would save us at least an hour.
We arrived and got picked up by Andy Brown and Simon from SSPCA and taken to the dolphin. It was stranded about 500 metres out in the middle of the bay. We met up with Kirsty Macdonald, and some other medics as well as the couple who spotted the dolphin. With high tide not until 06:30, we would be unable to re-float the dolphin until around 04:30.
Andrew Brownlow from SMASS gave us an update on the dolphin's condition, a 4 year old female. It had severe blisters on its right side believed to be caused by sunburn, having been stranded for over 12 hours, but due to the substrate and the good body condition we felt it would a viable re-float candidate.
With this information, we planned to attempt the re-float but would check how it responded once released and arranged to meet up again at around 04:00 and while the others got some sleep (the dolphin was safe and with wet sheets on it) we decided to take the RHIB back to Findhorn and come back with the van, we got back to Findhorn around 1 o'clock in the morning, dropped Simon off and jumped in the van and headed back to Nigg. We got there just before 03:00 so grabbed a few minutes sleep ready to go for the re-float. As the bay was very flat and shallow the tide would come in quickly Michelle, Pippa and I went out to the dolphin to check its condition at 03:45, with the other medics waiting for us to give the go ahead if they were required. We had taken the pontoons out with us and as soon as the others arrived we fitted the mat and positioned the pontoons. This was made tricky due to the blisters down the right side, making it difficult to role the dolphin keeping away from the blisters, with good teamwork and communication we managed it without damaging the skin..
With the tide coming in but staying shallow we worked on the tail stock and tried to restore her equilibrium. When the tide was high enough for us to move her we walked her out to deeper water, this took over an hour and eventually we managed to remove the pontoon keeping them filled with air I case we had to use them again if she failed to respond and we would have to take her back to shore. Thankfully she was staying upright and seemed to be responding to work on her tail stock, with further stimulation for around another hour, she was swimming free and using her tail stock more efficiently, but she was swimming up the bay and not out to the main channel. We headed back to shore to monitor her from the bank. Eventually she turned and was heading in the right direction. Happy that we had done all we could and and with luck she would make a full recovery, with everybody off the beach at 06:30, we headed for home. Often for dolphins the pontoons are not always the best option and simply using a tarpaulin is a better plan, but on this occasion they were invaluable and we definitely would not have been able to re-float her without them.
We headed back to the beach and observed her swimming around for a bit. She was last seen heading out of the bay into deeper water. Fingers crossed she recovers and reunites with the others.
We got home about 09:30 and was pleased to get a text from Andrew saying he had been monitoring her and she was swimming strongly and heading out to the main channel. Great news.
Boonie (Martin) Boon and Kirsty Macdonald
BDMLR Inverness-Shire, Nairnshire, Easter Ross & Cromarty
Many thanks to all who were invovled in this successful operation.
Photos courtesy of Lorraine Culloch