Fin whale in North Wales (updated 14.06.20 11:30)

Our volunteer Marine Mammal Medics are currently attending a small fin whale that live stranded in the Dee Estuary, North Wales, earlier this morning on the outgoing tide.

The tide is now out and the whale is fully beached on the sand. The animal is quite small, estimated at around 30ft long, and possibly still dependent upon its mother to survive. So far there have been no reported sightings of any other animals locally, which is a real concern. Fin whales are born at about 6m (20ft) long and can reach around 27m (70ft) at full size, making them the second largest animal in the world after the blue whale.

Due to the size and weight of the animal it is not possible to move it, and if it survives long enough will refloat by itself as the tide returns. However it is very important to realise that this is not a normal habitat or general area for fin whales to be in so even if it does refloat alive then the prognosis will not be good and it may well restrand within the confines of the estuary again. Similarly, putting the animal to sleep is virtually impossible given its size and the options currently available in the UK too.

With the aid of local boatmen, our team are currently assessing the situation and the whale. We will post a further update on this incident later.

We would kindly ask that people must continue to respect Covid-19 guidelines that are still in force including the five-mile travel limit in Wales – therefore people should not attempt to visit the area or gather in groups.

*Update – Fri 12th June 14:35*

The whale has now floated on the incoming tide and is beginning to swim for itself. Our team have managed to measure it more accurately at around 13.5m long, which is very close to the size that they are weaned and independent of their mother, so there may be some hope for this animal to survive by itself if it can find its way back out of the estuary. It is also in moderate body condition, which is helpful to its prognosis too.

Our team will continue to monitor from land and from a safe distance by boat so as not to cause any stress to the animal that might cause it to restrand. The tide is still coming in for at least another couple of hours and this will give it more space to move around in and hopefully locate the open sea.

*Update – Fri 12th June 19:25*

After the whale refloated on the tide this afternoon it spent some time reorienting itself in the estuary, circling the rescue boat with our team on board a few times and gaining strength in its breathing and swimming action. It was last seen heading out of the estuary onward to open water. There have been no reported sightings since.

We are cautiously optimistic that this has been a successful refloatation of the young fin whale, and we would ask people in the local region to please keep an eye out for it over the weekend as it may well remain in the area and there is still the possibility it may restrand.

We’d like to thank all our volunteer Medics who attended today as well as those assisting in the background, and of course all of the local people and boat operators who gave their support throughout the day to help achieve this outcome.

*Update – Sat 13th June 10:35*

Sadly the fin whale was resighted swimming in the Dee Estuary last night just before it got dark and has been found restranded this morning in the same area. We have our volunteer Medic team on the way again to assess the situation and whale’s current condition.

Our key concern now is that not only has the animal returned to the estuary after leaving, but that by the time the tide comes back in at lunchtime today that it will have spent a considerable amount of time out of the water. Whales have never evolved to be able to support their own weight on land of course, so when stranded they gradually crush themselves, causing significant internal damage to themselves. While yesterday we were fortunate that the animal was only stranded for a relatively short amount of time where any damage would have been limited, being stranded again now for some more hours will add to any damage that it has already sustained and may make it unviable to survive.

Due to the size and weight of the animal and the geography of the area, it is not possible to get the animal closer to the water to help relieve the pressure on its body. Dragging the animal by its tail will cause significant injuries and is not an option. As we mentioned yesterday, putting the animal to sleep is also incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons related to its size too.

We are saddened to say that the outlook today is looking less positive than yesterday, and we will update later with more news as the incident unfolds.

Good luck to our team out there today.

*Update – Sat 13th June 18:40*

Our team of Medics along with the local coastguard and people who helped yesterday have been working hard providing first aid to the whale throughout the day today. It is stranded a long way from the shore and the main channel of the estuary with the tide out most of the time so it has been an exhausting effort.

A water pump was employed to help relay water from the channel closer to the whale so Medics could gather buckets of water to help keep its skin wet so it didn’t dry out and cause further discomfort, while thin sheets have been put over its back to help make it comfortable, but there is not a great deal else that could be done.

The breathing rate was quite high for some time but gradually calmed down to a more normal rate, though it seemed less responsive in itself than it did yesterday. The tide has now come in once again so our team have withdrawn to safety. The whale is still alive and it will be monitored from the boat and the shore.

It is critical to understand how difficult this situation is. A whale of this size would weigh approximately 14 tonnes and it cannot simply be dragged by heavy machinery or lifted by a crane or helicopter. These methods could easily cause severe injury as well as induce severe stress, panic and shock that could lead to its death.

Although we want to be optimistic, we have to be absolutely realistic about the animal’s chances of survival at this point. It has spent several hours out of the water gradually being crushed under its own weight over the last couple of days and the degree of internal damage this may have caused could be very significant by now. Even if it does swim off again this evening there is a high chance that it will restrand and/or pass away as a result.

Its been a very long and tough day for our team so we would like to thank them for their efforts as well as the local Coastguard team and local residents, as well as North Wales Police who have had to control crowds and prevent people from coming into the dangerous estuary to get closer to the whale. Everyone has worked together as an amazing team throughout and once again all we can do is watch and wait.

*Update – Sun 14th June 11:30*

The fin whale restranded late last night on a sand bank near the Dee estuary mouth on the outgoing tide, but it was far too dangerous to send anyone out there to see if it was still alive.

It has been found stranded once again this morning and a team from the Coastguard and a licensed drone pilot with permission to fly the area have been observing it from a distance.

Sadly, though expected, there appear to be no signs of life left.

Once again we would reiterate that members of the public must abide by Covid-19 guidelines against gathering in groups and in Wales there is a 5-mile travel limit still in force too. The area is extremely dangerous due to tides and quicksand and we would strongly urge that people must not enter the estuary in any kind of attempt to get near it and put themselves in unnecessary danger. Nobody has any need or reason to go near it now except for the authorities from Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru / Natural Resources Wales who are now involved with retrieving the body. We are in contact with our colleagues at the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme- UK strandings regarding the possibility of a post mortem examination that may be able to take place to help us all learn more about this animal.

Once again we would like to extend our thanks to everyone who has been involved with this harrowing ordeal over the last couple of days, but also for the huge amounts of public support that the team have received from you all both in person and online.

Photos: Graham Barber, Gem Simmons