By Elsa Panciroli
With photographs by Charlie Phillips
I’d just finished my lunch when I got the call from my local BDMLR coordinator, Linda Nicholson, “it’s on.” She’d messaged to warn there’d been a mass stranding and I should stay by the phone. I’d spent the last 20 minutes manically gulping food and going over the action plan: call my boss, close-up, get fuel, go home, put together a grab bag, check the location - and drive.
It’s a stunningly beautiful 3 hour journey from Inverness where I run the WDCS Dolphin and Seal Centre with my colleague Kila, to Sarsgrum near Durness, in the far-flung north-westerly corner of the UK. I found myself see-sawing between excitement and dread. On the one hand I was going to see my first long-finned pilot whales: I’d be able to touch them, hear them and examine their beautiful bodies. On the other hand, was this really how I wanted to see my first: suffering as they lay crushed by their own weight on the cold sand?
At 6:15pm, I was the second WDCS worker on the scene after Field Officer Charlie Phillips, and far from the first person - let alone the first marine mammal medic - to get to Sarsgrum. The Kyle of Durness is a snaking bay just next door to Cape Wrath. It is narrow, shallow and riddled with mud and fine sand banks - a cetacean’s worst nightmare.
The police, Coastguard and BDMLR were visibly present, their cars lining the edge of the single-track road in a lopsided conga above the shore. There were 4 pilot whales at Sarsgrum: a mother and calf, an adult about 20 metres from them, and another adult on a bank in the middle of the bay, separated from the shore by waist deep water. As we are taught in training, I kitted up and made straight for the highest ranking BDMLR medic.
Tracey Meiklejohn, Coordinator for Caithness, filled me in on events so far. Around noon 50-60 pilot whales had been seen in the bay when the tide was in. Even at full water it was dangerously shallow. The Navy bomb disposal team, who operate off the cape, had used their boats to corral most of them out of the danger zone and seawards, but the four at Sarsgrum had beached despite their best efforts. We had to keep them alive and comfortable and wait for the tide, which was in 6 hours. Their chances of survival were quite slim.
I approached my first live pilot whale with my heart in my throat. It looked more like the models we trained on than a living creature. It proved itself conscious with explosive exhalations, its blowhole opening from a half moon slit to a fist-size gape and then swiftly pulling shut. At 4-5 breaths per minute it was in the normal range for a beached pilot. I went to the mother and calf and offered to take over from those who had been keeping them wet and monitored since they’d beached hours before.
The mother was 5-6 metres long, her calf 3-4 metres. They lay side by side, the calf squealing constantly in distress. Its mother listed terribly to her left, despite all efforts to upright her, and she occasionally thrashed in an effort to get closer to her youngster. They were draped in sheets, kept wet by three diligent members of the public. I sat myself beside the calf and began gently caressing him and cooing, hoping to calm him. He couldn’t have been more than 2 years old, still suckling.
What struck me was their eyes: they look right into you. Adrift on the land like this, whales are useless lumps of flopping fat, but you can see the intelligence and distress in their eyes. In the water these creatures have majesty and agilty, but out of their element they are crushed by gravity, prisoners in their own bodies and helpless.
It was decided to move the calf - a male - so the mother could see it more easily. She was distressed by the process, but calmed afterwards. The youngster continued to squeal. It was at this point we got the terrible news from BDMLR medic Jamie Dyer about the rest of the whales. While 20 of them had made it out of the Kyle to the open sea, the remaining animals had tragically beached on a sandbank out of sight of Sarsgrum. “It’s carnage out there,” he warned us, “only come if you have a dry suit and a strong stomach.”
At this point several of my colleagues from the WDCS Spey Bay centre arrived, so WDCS Conservation Officer Alison Lomax and I struggled into our drysuits and boarded the Coastguard and Navy ribs along with 30 others including medics and brave members of the public. As we were ferried through the shallow channel to the whales, Jamie Dyer explained that the animals were upside down, on top of one another, some being sick and others bleeding. “There are some already dead - you just have to put them out of your mind for now, try not to dwell. Our priority is to save those who are still alive and have the best chance of survival.”
We braced ourselves for the worst.
Some kind of safety valve shuts off your emotions in situations like this. Although the scene was terrible, we took a collective deep breath and went straight to work. Jumping into the shin deep water we split into two teams, moving from whale to whale, often stepping over dead ones to reach those still desperately trying to keep breathing. The noise was incredible, as every animals puffed, thrashed, squealed and screamed to each other. After digging into the sand under the belly side, we pushed each whale upright. One person stayed behind to brace the animal and stop it from tilting back onto its side, and the team moved on to the next. It went on like this until every living pilot whale was upright with its blowhole free of water and sand.
Many of the usual rules didn’t apply: pontoons and such equipment couldn’t be deployed effectively as the water got steadily deeper, and with the animals piled on top of one another it was impossible to avoid their powerful flukes. We had to watch out for one another and ourselves.
Soon the water was up to our thighs and we were able to help the smaller whales and juveniles off the sandbar. We did this in groups where possible, but again and again they came back towards their distressed friends. Some of us wrangled them away from the sand while others pushed and tugged more whales out to safety. Soon the group of swimming pilot whales had grown to around 15 animals, all huddling together and calling frantically.
It was an exhausting final effort to get the last and largest individuals out to join them. Two in particular refused to leave without each other. When we tried to push one, it would hear the other calling and turn back. In the end we had to push them nearer each other before both consented to be shoved off the sandbar. Meanwhile the bodies of those who didn’t make it were covered over and soon disappeared, including a calf no more than a couple of months, perhaps 2 metres long, its neonatal folds still clearly visible. It had died before we could get there.
The tide raced into the bay, and soon the ribs were pulling us out of the water. Alison and I, being tall, remained as long as physically possible, gently but forcefully pushing the pilot whales in the right direction and keeping them together. Soon we were close to being swept off our feet and the ribs retrieved us too. Only 4 or 5 people with flippers stayed to keep driving the group out to the sea and safety. We felt a mix of elation and worry as we watched them recede into the distance.
It was close to 11pm when we reached shore again. It had taken over 4 hours of punishing physical effort, but we’d achieved something fantastic: every whale that was alive when we got there had been refloated. Alison was cold and my drysuit had leaked badly. Thoughtful locals had come with hot drinks and snacks. We refuelled, changed our clothes and returned to Sarsgrum. We gave our drysuits to our WDCS colleagues and let them continue the fight to save the remaining 4 whales at Sarsgrum.
Alison and I were completely exhausted - it was over for us. Our thoughtful and resourceful boss, Centre’s manager Alice Mayne, had booked all of us into a hostel, where we collapsed into fitful sleep. Our team members kept the last whales alive and refloated them after 1am.
I woke at 4am and went to rejoin those still at Sarsgrum. Charlie Phillips and I had been keeping one another updated, and he was now out on the headland watching to make sure none of the animals were coming back. He told me at least 8 of the whales had restranded in the night, but only 4 were still alive. The other bodies may have been some of those already dead on the sandbar, but the 4 who were alive were likely to have been the ones that had been refloated late that night. One was a calf.
They were sinking into the mud, and it was a distressing couple of hours before a vet could reach them through the dangerous terrain and assess them. All were humanely euthanized. We breathed a sigh of relief that their suffering was over.
Our thoughts have to remain with the survivors. It’s a horrible event, and every death is sad and painful, but of 50-60 animals more than half, 40+ of them made it back to the sea. This is a fantastic success. Everyone worked tirelessly, despite the cold, lack of sleep and difficult conditions. I for one think exhaustion and aching muscles are worth it to rescue such beautiful, special creatures.
If it wasn’t for our efforts, most - if not all - would have perished.
It will be months before any of us will close their eyes without seeing pilot whales in their dreams.