Three Porpoises in one go

BDMLR had a somewhat unusual callout earlier this week in the Solway Firth, where three harbour porpoises were found live stranded in the estuary close to Brow Houses, near Gretna, in the early afternoon of bank holiday Monday.

While harbour porpoises are one of the most abundant cetaceans in UK waters, it is very rare for a mass stranding to occur with this species. In this case a member of the public found the animals and called them in to Belfast Coastguard, who in turn passed the details straight on to us at British Divers Marine Life Rescue. A text callout went out to the local team and we soon had volunteer Medics on scene working alongside the Annan Coastguard Rescue Team and Nith Inshore Rescue to reach them in a very tricky area with mud and quicksand.

Through the combined efforts of all involved and a local resident with a quad bike, the animals were able to be retrieved closer to the shoreline and a safe place to work on giving them first aid while assessments were carried out. There were two adults and one calf, all of which appeared to be in relatively good health externally, although there was concern for the reason for the stranding – had they simply been caught out by the tide, or was one of them ill and caused all of them to get stuck?

Harbour porpoises are a coastal species and usually adept at traversing close to shore and in tidal, estuarine habitats, so live stranding through navigational error in this species is less likely than in others, such as the common dolphin.

The decision was made to attempt a simultaneous refloat of all three animals by RIB out in the main channel where the deeper water and hopefully freedom could be found. Initially this went well and the two adult animals swam away strongly. Sadly though, the calf turned back and separated from them, restranding on a nearby sandbank instead. The animal was retrieved and a second attempt made, with the same result. A third attempt was then made, and again the calf stranded quickly. The adults had disappeared by this stage and knowing the calf was entirely dependent on its mother to survive, the situation was reassessed.

BDMLR Veterinary Consultant James Barnett was contacted for further advice, and a final attempt was made at refloatation in deeper water out where the adults were last seen. Unfortunately though, the calf once again stranded quickly and was deteriorating by this point. Without the mother around anymore there was no chance it would survive alone as it is dependent upon her milk for 7 – 10 months until it is weaned, and given its health was in question (and may be the reason these animals stranded originally) the very difficult decision had to be made to prevent suffering and distress. He was transported up the road to Firth Veterinary Centre for the procedure, accompanied by volunteers who had spent many hours trying their very best to rescue him. A post mortem examination will be carried out by our colleagues at the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme, which will hopefully reveal more about what was going on with the poor creature and whether it may have been the reason that this unusual incident occurred.

We would like to thank all our volunteer Marine Mammal Medics who were involved with this incident as well as Out Of Hours Coordinator Corinne Gordon and our Veterinary Consultant James Barnett. Of course we would also like to extend our sincere gratitude to Annan Coastguard Rescue Team, Nith Inshore Rescue, the local man with the quad bike and Firth Veterinary Centre for all their support and assistance with extra safety cover and equipment. Refloating two out of the three animals was a great success that could have only been achieved with everyone working together in such a difficult environment, so well done to you all.

Photo courtesy of: Stewart Bryden/Annan Coastguard.