We’re still not sure why whales and dolphins sometimes find themselves stuck on dry land. It is likely that they simply get disoriented while foraging or they don’t know the area well. Especially on mud flats where the water recedes quickly, animals can be taken by surprise. Others may be sick and weak, and actively seek shallow waters to allow them to be closer to the water surface to breathe. Regardless of the reason, if you come across a stranded animal or animals, the first thing on your agenda should be to call the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group. Besides having decades of experience with cetaceans in Irish waters, they have a list of trained people to attend the scene, help to assess the situation and determine a plan of action.
Dummy dolphin used to practice safe refloating of small cetaceans as part of the
IWDG Live Stranding Course
This is exactly what happened a few weeks ago. A dog-walker came across two live stranded common dolphins near Cahersiveen and called Stephanie Levesque, the Strandings Officer of the IWDG. Stephanie checked her list of trained volunteers and got in touch with me. Only having attended the Live Stranding Course the previous Saturday, most things were still fresh in my memory and the stranding site was only a five-minute drive from where I was. I jumped into the car and drove off, adrenaline pumping. Other IWDG members had already been informed but were further from the scene, so I was the first one to arrive.
Finding the initial caller at the beach, I had her point out the dolphins to me. Both bodies were stuck in the mud flats, still partially covered in water. The larger animal, however, was lying on its side, not moving. I was told later that the animal had died just prior to my arrival. Having checked for reflexes, I was almost certain it was dead. As the pair was initially thought to be a mother-calf pair, I was relieved that this was not the case after identifying the deceased, larger animal as a young male.
Larger dolphin which turned out to be deceased
With the tide receding quickly, the smaller animal was struggling to stay upright so I slowly into the mud to keep it from tumbling over. Whenever a dolphin, whale or porpoise is stranded, it is severely stressed. On land they are outside of their natural habitat and not able to get back into it, surrounded by unfamiliar noises and ‘animals’. Monitoring the breathing rate at all times is just as important as shading the animal to avoid sunburn and keep the skin moist. So that is what I did while waiting for others to arrive.
Fiach Byrne, a colleague of mine, was the first one to arrive, bringing a bucket and large towel with him. I explained that we were waiting for volunteers from Sea Synergy and one more IWDG member, who has extensive experience with stranded animals. Everyone seemed better prepared than myself, standing in the water in my denim pants, but it turned out to be a quick rescue mission.
After a health and stress assessment (with Stephanie continuously in my ear), we decided the quickest and safest route to get the animal back into the water was to relocate it to Cuas Crom. We were immensely lucky to find a pickup van parked right by the beach with a driver eager to help. He brought the van as close as possible and we started to bring the animal onto a small tarp, just as I had learned two days prior.
We then quickly lifted onto the van, drove over to the other beach, and released it into the water. The breathing rate went up at first, when the animal was back in the water, but it eventually started to swim out of the small bay in a straight line, surfacing occasionally until we could not make it out anymore.
Smaller, alive animal before it was refloated
Now, this all being said and done, we don’t know if the animal was able to reconnect with its pod, as they were not spotted along the coast, and we can only hope that was the case. The animal was still young, but was assumed to be not suckling anymore, as the mother was seemingly not involved in the stranding.
Based on the event, I want to stress the importance of having people on the scene that have attended a live stranding course and are experienced in such situations. You may not have either, but to find the best way to help the animal, the first step is always to call the IWDG.
Become a First Responder
If you are interested in becoming a first responder yourself, check out the IWDG event page for the next Live Stranding Course. If that’s too much, even being able to identify the species can be of huge importance. Doing an ID course with the IWDG or getting an ID guide are the first steps that I took to get more familiar with the different species. Another option is to read our cetacean blogs.
You might even want to join me on one of my land-based watches or end up doing one yourself. The best way to study cetaceans really is to watch them and get familiar with their appearance, habitats, and behaviours and that can all be done without getting your feet wet.
To finish this post up, a quick reminder and on Dos and Don’ts in the situation of a live stranding.
YES PLEASE, DO:
Immediately call Stephanie Levesque, Strandings Officer with the IWDG, (089 2790295), and wait for instructions on the next steps to take.
Never drag the animals by their tails! Besides adding stress to the already stressed animal, you will likely dislocate a disc in the vertebrae or worse. The very thin skin of the animals also scratches easily and being dragged over a beach can cause severe skin damage.
Never let dogs near stranded animals, dead or alive! They are mammals and can transmit several parasites and diseases, to humans and their beloved companions. Always be aware of that.
Never shout! Cetaceans have very sensitive hearing. Being stressed already by being out of their natural habitat, noise adds to the stress. Therefore, have only minimum number of people around the animal (one is enough to ensure a small dolphin or porpoise is kept cool and shaded), talk with calm voices and keep barking dogs and other noise disturbance as far away as possible.