Published: 05/09/2012 11:00 - Updated: 05/09/2012 11:23

Caithness rescuers lead fight to save pilot whales

Written byAlan Shields

Alistair Jack (in green jacket) helped co-ordinate the major rescue mission.
Alistair Jack (in green jacket) helped co-ordinate the major rescue mission.

CAITHNESS marine rescuers played a pivotal role in saving a pod of pilot whales stranded on a beach at the weekend.

The local volunteer branch of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) sprung into action twice between Friday and Sunday to aid whales around Scotland.

The team was led by BDMLR’s Scottish national organiser Alistair Jack, of Scarfskerry, who took charge of the rescue of a pod of pilot whales which had become stranded on the shore at Pittenweem, Fife.

It was a frantic Sunday wake-up call for the team as the early morning alert came only seven hours after they had returned from another mission in Tayside where a Minke whale had become entangled and later died.

The first report at 7am on Sunday suggested 15 dolphins had beached on the shoreline, which would not require the marine rescue services but Ali and his team started prepping equipment just in case.

By 8.15am, the first BDMLR medics arrived on the scene and confirmed there was in fact 26 stranded pilot whales – with only half still alive – in a difficult-to-access coastal area.

But it quickly became clear that time was of the essence because the crucial high tide required to get them back out to sea was expected at around 4pm.

"Time was critical and we knew we had to get as much equipment there as soon as possible," said Ali.

"Luckily we had already set off by the time we got confirmation."

"As the senior medic, I took overall control and got down on scene."

Ali was accompanied by three marine medics from Caithness and joined scores of others from emergency services, voluntary groups, and other UK BDMLR branches.

When Ali and his team arrived in Pittemweem at 2.20pm, the local co-ordinator Gareth Norman had managed to get the 13 remaining whales upright.

However, only 11 of the pod were suitable to be refloated as two were so ill, it would have been inhumane to return them to the water.

Normally, injured whales would be put down but a lack of the necessary drug – part of a global shortfall since it was taken off the market – meant they had to be allowed to die naturally.

"Obviously this is not they way we would like to had done it," he said.

"We would have preferred to put them out of their misery as soon as possible."

The rescuers started fitting mats and refloat pontoons to the whales closest to the water and key to the rescue was holding on to them so they could leave as a group, therefore increasing their chances of survival.

However, this was not an easy task as some of the mammals weighed up to two tons and measured up to six metres long.

"Some of them were huge, six metres plus, and they were relatively easy to hold in the water," he said.

"The little ones were worse as they were so active, taking 10 volunteers to hold on to."

The rescuers’ next task was to rock the mammals side to side to restore their balance.

While in the water, one of the smaller pilot whales went into convulsions and died, leaving a pod of 10, but two of the whales became stranded again and had to be coaxed back out into open water.

There was more tension when one of the whales started rolling over in the water, but the rest of the pod quickly came to its aid and nudged it back the right way up.

"It was a tense moment," said Mr Jack.

"But it was quite a touching scene to be honest.

"You could see their very tight social bonds come into play."

Once righted, the pod disappeared and did not show up again until surfacing just off Leith on Monday.

Mr Jack added:"They were heading in the wrong direction — into the Firth of Forth rather than into the North Sea,"

"Two broke away from the group of ten and one subsequently stranded and died near the harbour."

The whales were last seen off the Fife coast and experts are hoping they have now moved out to deeper waters.

The Caithness BDMLR team were involved with the last recorded mass stranding of pilot whales when 44 of 60 were rescued at the Kyle of Durness in July last year.

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