British Divers Marine Life Rescue’s team in Orkney were called out yesterday afternoon (Wednesday 15 March) to a report of a cetacean live-stranded at Waulkmill Bay near Orphir. Photographs from the finder quickly confirmed this to be a minke whale and a team was rapidly tasked to attend the animal which had stranded on the sand at the top of the tide well up the beach.
The first medics on scene ably assisted by the Kirkwall Coastguard team as safety backup were able to confirm that the animal was a 4.5 metre female in excellent body condition and seemingly unstressed by her situation, so a good candidate for refloat. Whilst discussions were ongoing with the BDMLR Director of Operations and expert colleagues from the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme to confirm that the animal was an independent juvenile as well as being a refloat candidate, whale rescue pontoons were deployed to stabilise the animal. An attempt was made to move the animal at this point, but with the rapidly falling tide, it became apparent that there was not enough water around her to support the body weight so a plan of monitoring the animal over the next few hours in case she deteriorated was put into place whilst we waited for the tide to turn. A deep trench was also dug to allow water to come around the animal to help keep her wet as well as aid the incoming tide with a refloat attempt.
After several hours and with the whale remaining stable, medics were in position to attempt a refloat at 1.30am once enough water was around the animal. Weather conditions had deteriorated considerably by this point and a strong force 5 wind was blowing straight up the bay. Whilst this help push the tide in more quickly, it was creating big waves so the team moved the whale out to deeper water as quickly and safely as possible. The animal was making attempts to swim and in the fairly rough conditions managed to get out of the pontoons at about 2.30am and the team had to withdraw for safety reasons in the rough conditions. She was semi-stranded on a sandbank that the team had not been able to get over due to the high waves, however, she was upright, pointing to the open water and pushing to swim. With the incoming tide, it was hoped that she would get away quickly in the rapidly rising tide. A thorough sweep of the bay this morning showed no sign of the animal, and we are confident that she has left the bay under her own power.
Medics will continue to monitor the area over the next few days and we do request that if anyone does find a stranded whale in the area to please get in touch straight away on the hotline 01825 765546. They also marked the dorsal fin on both sides with orange all-weather livestock marker chalk so if anyone does also spot a minke whale around with this marking, again please contact our hotline.
This was a very long and cold incident, and we would like to thank all the BDMLR medics who attended for all their hard work in difficult and very cold conditions right up until the very small hours of Thursday morning. We’d also like to thank HMCG Area 1 Kirkwall Coastguard rescue team for providing safety cover throughout this incident. Quite simply, the team would not have been able to attempt a rescue in the early hours of the morning without your support, so thank you all. Finally, We’d like to thank the wonderful members of public who turned up trumps with flasks of hot water after a plea on social media. This meant we could keep the team warm and hydrated with hot drinks during the long period of monitoring whilst we waited for the tide. Never underestimate the power of a cup of tea after half an hour on a freezing beach! Without such amazing help, a refloat in the cold and dark simply would not have been possible and our thanks go to every single person involved this evening.
If you see a live cetacean stranded on the shore, please call the BDMLR hotline on 01825 765 546, option 1. This number is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Alternatively, if you find a dead stranded marine animal, please report this to SMASS via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07979 245893.
Top image: Myles Campbell. Other images Tom Hadley