Charlie Phillips called us on Thursday evening to let us know about the large pod of pilot whales in shallow water in Loch Carnan, South Uist in the Western Isles of Scotland. By mid-morning on Friday we were stood alongside SSPCA and BDMLR on a spit between a power station and a fish farm, with 50... 60... 80? whales swimming just a few hundred metres away.
At first glance they looked healthy enough. A mixed group containing a number of very young animals who were sticking close to their mothers sides to large adult males (who are noticeably larger than the females). Herring gulls circled overhead. By mid-afternoon the whales had moved past the fish farm and a little further out of the Loch nestled in between a collection of small islands and skerries. They were close enough to the headland for us to hear their whistles and chirps and almost smell their blows. To see that number of whales, so close to shore, was an unforgettable sight and a privilege. But it was with a heavy heart that we watched them, as we could now make out the abrasions on some of the animals beaks and foreheads. Had they already stranded somewhere in the last couple of days? The UK’s top specialist marine mammal vets think so. We watched from the headland until the power station closed and we were moved on. What was to be the fate of this pod of whales? Only time could tell and we now play the waiting game.
Only 7 months ago a similar event ended in tragedy when a pod of about 35-40 pilot whales spent several days in this very Loch (coincidence?) and then stranded and died on the north-west coast of Ireland. Photographs of the dorsal fins confirmed that those animals that stranded in Ireland in 2010 were that pod from Loch Carnan. We are hoping for a different end to this tale.
Alistair Jack, BDMLR Scottish Stranding Co-ordinator, who is leading the monitoring and potential rescue attempt, and his BDMLR colleagues, kept a late night watch over the whales and were back there at first light on Saturday to maintain the vigil (there are not too many hours of darkness on the Uists at this time of year!). They updated us that that the whales had not moved far.
Preparing for this potential stranding has been a military event and BDMLR are at it’s heart and soul, with more volunteers and rescue kits arriving by the hour. But without more people power the pontoons would be useless and so the day was spent in the village hall with a bunch of dedicated locals, learning about rescue training – and preparing for the worst in this case, as well as the inevitable in future. Everyone here on the Islands is concerned for the whales and has been really supportive and helpful in making our stay as pleasant as it can be under the circumstances. . [If you haven’t done the BDMLR Marine Mammal Medic course, then sign up! Not only is it a professional and passionately run course, but you will be given the opportunity to assist in future rescue attempts in your local area: www.bdmlr.org.uk].
After a full day of mass stranding rescue training we headed back up to the headland with BDMLR to find the whales. It was windy and wet and the pod was in the same position as the previous day. They looked to be resting, with many animals logging on the surface and just a few circling around and spy-hopping with their heads out of the water. Then one of the medics that was new on the scene reported rumours of a dead whale - so we scoured the coastline. There she was, laid out on the rocks with the tide rising around her. This is not what we had been expecting. We had been preparing for the whole pod to strand.
Immediately Alistair called the Scottish Fisheries Protection vessel that was standing off on the other side of the islands to request small vessel support. A small crew came and helped to bring the whale to shore before the tide rose higher and we lost her body. At 4.8m, the adult female had some injuries from this stranding on the rocks, but also some damage from before this, possibly from a previous stranding event.
This was a very sad end to another long day. However this whale’s death has not been in vain. The UK has a world-leading stranding network that helps to rescue many animals and also post mortems dead animals, to help us understand their biology and why they died. Specialist vet, Dr. Andrew Brownlow from the Scottish Agricultural College is preparing to conduct a full post mortem this morning (Sunday) and we are now packing up our things and heading along to do what we can to help. Maybe this whale can help us to learn something about the incident that has led this pod of whales into Loch Carnan? We hope so.