Rescuers were able to return 44 long-finned pilot whales back to sea on Saturday after their pod was stranded at low tide near the northwestern tip of Scotland in the Kyle of Durness, a sea inlet near Cape Wrath. Many were stranded on their sides, on top of each other or upside down and were breathing in sand. Sadly, 25 whales perished.
According to the Guardian, British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) medics, the coastguard and the Royal Navy began the rescue effort on Friday night. They were able to rotate whales who were upside down; the whales would otherwise have drowned when the tide came back in. Inflatable pontoons helped some of the whales get back into the water.
Rescuers are searching for evidence of other whales who, they hope, have been able to return to the open water and are also seeking to find out what caused the mass stranding. Said Mark Simmonds, head of science at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in AFP:
“Something may have startled the group further out to sea and they panicked, came into this unusual situation and were unable to find their way out.”
Simmonds describes the Kyle of Durness as a “whale trap” as it is a narrow body of water with soft sandbanks, which may confuse the whales’ echolocation abilities.
Pilot whales are among the most intelligent of marine animals, are extremely social and have an altruistic nature, tending to stay with sick members of their pod. They prefer deep waters but come closer to shore to feed on squid; they also eat octopus, cuttlefish, herring and other small fish.
If one member of their pod is stranded, the others would try to assist that member, only to get themselves in trouble — the whales’ altruism may be why the pod became stranded in the Kyle of Durness. Says Simmons in the Guardian:
“Stranding on rocks will wound the whales quickly but even on a soft sandy shore it is still a race against time for experts to try to get them back into the water, and even then there may be a problem of persuading the group to go back into the open sea.”
In May, a post of about 60 pilot whales appeared in Loch Carnan, South Uist, in Scotland. They were thought to be accompanying a wounded female and left after one member died of an infection. Last October, 33 pilot whales were found dead on Donegal beach, says the Guardian.
Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the rescuer, most of the whales stranded in the Kyle of Durness are back in the open water. If we can figure out why so many pilot whales have been stranded on the sand, perhaps we can help to prevent this from happening.
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Photo by SeaDave