Pilot whales stranding, South Uist (updated 14.06.20 09:50)

Last night (Thursday 11th June) we were alerted to a pod of up to 20 long finned pilot whales being observed in deep water that were milling around near Lochboisdale, South Uist, Outer Hebrides. From their behaviour they did not appear stressed and were far from the shore, so were left to carry on undisturbed.

Sadly this morning at least four of the animals were found stranded further along the coast, with the remaining animals are still in the water nearby. We would urge anyone in the area to avoid approaching them in boats etc as in their now distressed state they could easily be distracted or panic and become stranded themselves.

This is a very difficult situation for us as we have no volunteers on the island and it is still effectively locked down as they have had no Covid 19 cases there. We are working hard with contacts on the island to help the animals as best as we can, some of which have since been refloated successfully, but some remain stranded at the moment. We have been given permission to send a small team and equipment across from a neighbouring island in hope that we may still be able to assist.

We will post another update later as this incident progresses.

*Update – Friday 12th June 17:00*

Thanks to the tremendous efforts of the islanders, 8 pilot whales were refloated out of the group that were found live stranded on South Uist this morning.

Sadly a small number of whales have not survived, but those that are alive in the water are a little further offshore now but still obviously in distress. We can only hope that they will now move out to sea and not return.

This has been a extremely difficult situation with not having any of our team on the ground, but we’ve had our Hebrides Area Coordinator organise a team who remain on standby to come across as well as a small number of Medics from the mainland with additional rescue equipment should it be needed, so thank you to them all for their efforts with this complex situation. A big thank you also to our National Coordinator Julia Cable who has been advising and liaising throughout the day on this incident with a large number of people and organisations.

The whales will continue to be monitored and we’ll have to wait and see what they do next. We’re remaining on standby to attend if they restrand.

*Update – Sun 14th June 09:50*

On Saturday morning the surviving pilot whales that were refloated by the islanders on South Uist following the mass stranding incident on Friday were still in the area close to the shore.

Although the island is still locked down as it has had no cases of Covid 19, we were given permission to send over a very experienced volunteer Medic, Noel Hawkins, with two sets of our whale rescue pontoons from Ullapool and Skye to assist should they restrand.

Sadly, 9 of the group did restrand, so as soon as Noel arrived he found them with locals David, Ruaraidh and Declan in a narrow cove on rocks and tangled in seaweed as the tide approached high tide. With the help of Roddy, Claire, Joana, Lorna and Chris the pontoons were taken out to them. They pushed them off the rocks into deeper water repeatedly until they stayed off the rocks, but were quite distressed.

They were given some time to see if they would head out themselves and used the opportunity to go and look at the single animal that was still in the bay where they had come ashore the previous day. It was clearly distressed but seemed healthy so they opted to herd it back out of the channel to the area where the group were. This went successfully and they left it a little way from the main group while a second boat was fetched to see if herding could be applied to get them further out.

Before the second boat was able to arrive, the pod began to restrand once again, so the team went ashore to reassess them. Two of the animals were having difficulty and were turning upside down and causing some injuries on the rocks. Again they were pushed back into deeper water while the others were ketp from returning to shore. By this time they had identified there were obvious related animals that were calling for and following others, so they worked in relay to get the healthier ones out and then get the others to follow. Although it took a few attempts, when they did get out and found the single separated animal from earlier they seemed to regroup and act very differently.

The two boats were used to herd the group out through a narrow channel before the tide dropped too far, and by working between them managed to get them out of the shallows and confined areas of the reefs into a deeper channel. Once they were beyond the fish farm outside of Lochboisdale they started to dive deeper and for longer, and also moving at a faster rate. Once they were clear and into deep water they were left to head out into the main water between Uist and Skye as it was felt there was no more that could be done and they looked to be in reasonable health.

We’d like to send a huge thank you to all of the local people who came to help including David, Uist Sea Tours, Mowi, Ruaraidh, Declan, Roddy, Paul, Chris, Claire, Joana and Lorna plus everyone else who came down. Also thanks to David’s family Cathleen, Ellie May and Libbie who joined him in the boat herding the whales and singing Gaelic songs as the whales left – perhaps inspiring them back to sea. Their actions on the first day despite having no training and only advice over the phone from our Hotline Coordinator saved the lives of 10 out of 17 animals and this was repeated again on Saturday.

Thank you also to the local Coastguard who kept an eye on us from the shore whilst the team were out and the many members of the local community that kept an eye on the whales throughout it all, particularly Rory who was able to share lots of useful information and contacts with Noel while he was on the way still. Thank you to the Skydancer cafe and staff who provided refreshments to the team and to Uist Storm-Pods who have allowed Noel to stay in one of their pods until he can return home on the next ferry on Monday – this is all greatly appreciated!

Thank you also to Hebrides Coordinator Sara Wood-Kwasniewska for organising Medic Janet Marshall from the Isle of Lewis to also come to South Uist with another set of pontoons that were thankfully not required in the end.

Finally of course, a huge well done and thank you to Noel Hawkins for the amazing efforts of coordinating yesterday’s operation and hopefully bringing this incident to its conclusion. We’ll still be on alert should they turn up again and would ask if anyone in the general region of South Uist could let us know of any further sightings of this pod, but to please not approach them and remain at a distance to minimise stress as they hopefully get back out to sea now.

Photos: Uist Sea Tours and Noel Hawkins