It was sunny but too windy to watch yesterday so we took the dogs for a walk on one of the longest and most beautiful beaches on Lewis, at Traigh Mhor. Half way along the long stretch of white sand we suddenly became aware of a very sad situation. A couple we assumed were building a sand castle in the distance were actually attending to a young stranded dolphin.
It didn’t take us a second to realise that it was a young Risso’s dolphin - and that it was still alive. The couple had covered the dolphin in wet towels to keep it moist and to protect its sensitive skin from the bright sunlight and they were covering its body with sea water in an attempt to keep it cool. The dolphin was way up the sandy beach, close to the sand dunes and a long way from the receding low tide. It appears to have stranded at 7.30am on the high tide and it was now almost lunch time. It had therefore been out of the water for several hours.
Nicola stayed behind to help and comfort the dolphin whilst Simon and I headed back to the house to report the stranding and to gather some equipment that might come in handy for a rescue attempt. Shortly after we returned to the beach the vet arrived and determined that the best course of action was to euthanise the animal. We stood back and looked on with incredible sadness. Not only was this a young and seemingly healthy looking animal, this could have been one of the dolphins that we had been photographing from the boat in previous days.
In an effort to make some good of this terribly sad situation, a post mortem was undertaken today. Whilst we don’t know all of the test results straight away, Andrew Brownlow, a vet at the Scottish Agricultural College, came over from Inverness to conduct a thorough post-mortem and we now have the answers to some important questions about this animal.
This young Risso’s dolphin was a healthy juvenile male (2.76m) with a good blubber layer. He may have suffered some internal damage due to hours that he spent out of the water on the beach, but we will not know the answer to some questions about disease until more detailed histopathology has been undertaken on the samples that we collected.
As with all cetacean strandings, it was a very sad and unexpected event. But we hope to find some good in every situation and this is true of strandings also. We are lucky enough to have a great strandings network in the UK, with a dedicated team of vets and other professionals. Andrew caught an overnight ferry to get to Lewis in order to conduct the post-mortem whilst the carcass was still fresh. And as a result we have learnt something fascinating about the Risso’s dolphins off the north-east coast of Lewis. This young male had numerous squid beaks and stones in his stomach, and we also found an almost intact whole, fresh squid, as well as most of an intact langoustine, both of which were eaten in the last few hours before stranding. This demonstrates that this was a young animal that was well enough to feed only hours before it stranded and also that it was feeding here in Scottish waters. From the information we have gathered so far, it seems most likely that this stranding was brought about by a social situation. Perhaps a group of male Risso’s separated this juvenile dolphin from his mother and he became confused and ultimately stranded..?
And finally, the sad death of this young dolphin has strengthened our commitment to better understand the role of these amazing animals in Scottish waters and make sure that they receive the protection and respect that they deserve.
If you see a stranded animal in Scotland, please contact the following organisations who can help the animal and/or collect important information:
DEAD ANIMALS – 01463 243030 (Scottish Agricultural College)
ALIVE ANIMALS – 03000 999 999 (Scottish SPCA Animal Helpline)
01825 765 546 (British Divers Marine Life Rescue)