Pilot whales herded to safety

Over the May bank holiday weekend, two pods of pilot whales were successfully herded out of danger of becoming stranded on the Orkney Isles of Sanday and Stronsay thanks to the combined efforts of BDMLR Medics, islanders, local boat operators and others.

The logistically complex rescue began on Friday 24 May, when a pod of 13 whales were first spotted very close to shore in St Catherine’s Bay, Stronsay and apparently supporting one of their number at the surface that may have been ill or injured. A second, larger group of around 30 animals was also found off Sanday close to Kettletoft.

Throughout Saturday they were monitored closely, and due to concerns over them becoming stranded, arrangements were made to transport more sets of BDMLR’s whale rescue pontoons by plane from across Scotland and Northern England along with more personnel. Meanwhile, a plan watch hatched to gently herd the animals back out to deeper water using a flotilla of boats, which would be carried out under a special licence held by BDMLR as cetaceans are protected from disturbance.

By Sunday, word went round and offers of boats started coming in. To help move the whales further away from the shallows at Sanday, islanders plus a couple of kayakers began making a noise wall from the shore to help move the group further out to where the boats could operate effectively. The flotilla took over shepherding the pod out and around the headland Eastwards. The animals responded very well, and although they split up a couple of times, were safely left a good distance offshore late in the evening. The exhausted team returned to shore ready to do the same at Stronsay the next day.

The pod at Stronsay proved trickier to move, as they had spent most of the previous day in a shallow and narrow channel where the risk of stranding was high and boats would not be able to move around very easily, and on Monday morning remained in the same place. However, the big difference was that the animal the others had been supporting no longer appeared to be affected by health issues and was swimming normally in the group without assistance. The same plan was put into action later in the afternoon to coincide with the high tide, and a flotilla of boats in formation started to escort the pod out of the bay. Much like the previous group, although they split up occasionally, they were easily persuaded to head around the headland and moved towards the east. They were taken much further until they had cleared the small islet of Auskerry. They were left later that evening hopefully to reunite with the other pod, as they were suspected to have been one group originally.

This was an absolutely fantastic effort from all involved, as not only was the location’s remoteness an issue, but also having two separate groups to work with on two different islands with limited resources. Thankfully the animals did not strand, and the herding efforts were effective and BDMLR remains cautiously optimistic this has been a very successful operation.

There were a large number of people and organisations involved throughout this incident to whom BDMLR would like to extend its sincerest thanks – this really was a story of a community coming together to help these animals any way it could:

Stronsay: John Stevenson, Leslie Miller, Ian Cooper, Iain Johnston, Craig Weaver, Charlie Riching Stronsay Ranger, Richard Seaber at Stronsay Fish Mart.

Sanday: Imogen Sawyer, Martin Sawyer and Russell Neave, Magda MacDonald, Jonathan Hines, Johanna Gilbert, Andy and Cynthia Leggat, Beth Barnes-Wilcox, Anna Halford, plus all the residents who came to help with creating the sound wall.

Boats: Northerly Marine ServicesLeask Marine LtdScottish SeafarmsCooke Aquaculture Scotland Ltd for providing boats and crews for herding the whales and for ferrying around people/equipment.

Graham Mountford of Sky Watch – UK Civil Air Patrol England & Wales for flying up whale pontoons and Medics from England and Scotland.

All BDMLR Medics involved on the ground and behind the scenes: Emma Neave-Webb, Dave Gaskell, Penny Martin, Sam and Marc Herridge, Ross Flett, Karen Hetherington, Anne Bignall, Dave Wakefield, Tracey Jackson, Scott Napier, Colin McFadyen, Martin Boon, Richard Ilderton, Smudger, Cath Bain and Leigh-Anne Adams. Additionally of course Out of Hours Coordinator Corinne Gordon, staff members Julia Cable and Teri Charlton, and our Chairman Alan Knight!