Well when the news came in that there had been a mass stranding we immediately packed. I packed overnight essentials, bits of food that could be eaten on the go, waterproofs and dozens of warm layers. We also packed dry-suits, old sheets, buckets, and high viz vests.
And then we waited. Waited for the call to say that we were needed. These freshly trained marine mammal medics, Mercedes, Ruth and I. The call eventually came and off we set at 12.15 on our three and a half hour journey down to Pittenweem, on the Firth of Forth. We stopped for KY jelly en-route, oh and also when a nice gentleman gently drove into the side of Bubbles on an Aberdeen roundabout. Note the sarcasm there. We swapped details and I explained that I really didn’t have time to argue about who’s fault it was. He was irate and rude from start to finish. I’m afraid I drove away amid his threats to call the police. We were on a mission to save thirty whales and he was not going to deter us!
So, emotional and anxious we finally arrived. It was a media circus. News reporters, police, and hundreds of public spectators. The police were doing a grand job of crowd control. And we felt rather important as we flashed our Marine Mammal Medic ID cards at them and were waived through like VIPs.
There were dozens of coast guards, lifeboat volunteers and obviously BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue) volunteers. These volunteer medics, like us, had travelled from all over Scotland and the North of England. It was quite phenomenal just to witness so many folk, who care so much, all gathered in one place with one shared objective. To save these beautiful creatures.
High tide is the easiest time to get large cetaceans back into the water. These animals were a pod of 26 pilot whales. Too large an animal to carry. They had stranded in the early hours of this morning, and twelve hours was just too long for some of them to survive out of the water. High tide was at 4pm. We arrived just after four. Just in time to watch the remaining live ones swim free. We’d missed the action. But more importantly 16 of this pod were dead. Including every calf. If we’d been here earlier could any more have been saved? Its a horrible question that will cross my mind for a while to come.
We chatted with the BDMLR guys as they returned up from the beach. And we watched the live 10 swimming and splashing along the beach towards the harbour. Coastguards in a rib were doing their best to keep themselves between the dolphins and the beach, but two of them somehow managed to re-beach themselves in the harbour.
As fast as we could we jumped in the car and headed to the harbour, along with more coast guards. We got our dry-suits on ready for action. Alas, we didn’t have life-jackets and had to leave the rescuing to the coast guards who obviously had all the right kit on. We helped a police officer do a bit of crowd control, but that’s as far as the action went for us.
We watched the two reunite with the other eight. One was having some trouble with staying upright in the water, a common occurrence after being stranded for a while. The matriarch and co kept waiting for this one to catch up and eventually it seemed ok. With the help of a shepherding coast guard rib, the matriarch finally took back control of her now very small and childless family and headed out to sea.
Ten survived. It could have been much worse. But why did they strand in the first place? They don’t strand for no reason. There’s always a reason. I shall do some investigating. And my first search will be to see if there is a naval base in the vicinity. Y
ou may have wondered why I have called pilot whales dolphins. That’s because they are dolphins. But hey they are all related and all very intelligent charismatic animals.
So we didn’t get to do any saving today. My lesson learnt for the day was to check the tide times before heading off to a long distance stranding. If we’d checked the tide times we would have known to either set off much earlier, or not at all. Exhaustion, a feeling of uselessness, a slightly dented car, and a lesson learnt.
We did see live pilot whales though. And dead ones too unfortunately. Tragically, the babies were all grouped together. We also got to meet up with ex-vol Erika, who’d driven from Glasgow. We went for a fish and chip supper and then headed back from whence we came.
No roundabout incidents this time!