West Donegal whale protection group formed as threats to human health resurface

Following an often emotional public meeting held at Teac Jack in Glassagh earlier this week, a wildlife protection group has been formed in west Donegal to lobby for government policy changes towards stranded marine animals and to promote specialized training.

The ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group,’ which was established at the Tuesday evening meeting, follows concerns by many local people about the treatment of a pod of 13 pilot whales that were left stranded on Ballyness beach near Falcarragh, which all died of slow suffocation after five days. It is the 13th such stranding this year in Donegal, including a sperm whale stranded off Machaire Rabhartaigh beach. Around 32 other whales died off Rutland Island two years ago and were cut up and transported to Cavan where they were incinerated.

Meanwhile, concerns have arisen as to what caused the mysterious deaths of all the whales amid a recent rise in the numbers of marine animals being stranded off Donegal’s coast.  And that, whatever it is, may also be a hazard to human health.

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A stranded pilot whale struggles for life at Ballyness beach near Falcarragh, west Donegal. (Photo by Antonia Leitner).

Chairperson of the meeting, Amanda Doherty, with Selkie Sailing, who has also launched a petition that has attracted more than 230 signatures on the issue, said she was pleased by decisions those attending had made together.

“We want to raise community awareness and have the current policy regarding cetacean strandings in the area reviewed,” she said. “It should be a more flexible policy to allow for the particulars of different situations that occur. This is best practice according international standards and Ireland should follow it.”

Some people at the meeting – many of whom tried their best to save the dying whales – became emotional as they described the traumatic situation at Ballyness beach and the agony of the cetaceans as they slowly died of suffocation in shallow water.

Members of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), led by Dave Duggan and Pat Vaughan, decided “to let nature takes its course” rather than try to save the whales or apply euthanasia to reduce the whales’ suffering. They also did not ask the coastguard for assistance to bring the whales out to sea, as has happened in other parts of Ireland. The state-funded Donegal county veterinary office under the leadership of Charles Kealey, chief veterinary officer, has also come under criticism for refusing to get involved in any way to help the whales, including making sure the mammals were dead before they were buried. (In contrast, see photo below of a cetacean (dolphin) being treated more humanely in another part of Ireland, with vets and the coastguard involved).


Westport-based Irish Coastguard assist with a stranded Common Dolphin which could not be refloated. A Mayo vet administered an injection to humanely end its suffering. Photo by Shay Fennelly

Pearse Doherty Sinn Fein TD for west Donegal, who has submitted a number of formal questions over the last week in the Dail to Ministers regarding the treatment of stranded whales and other cetaceans, attended the meeting and gave his advice on the best way forward for the group. Doherty said it was important the new group work with current organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and suggested a two-pronged approach – making sure policy at the IWDG matched international standards, and the establishment of  ‘first responders’ in the local area, recognized by the NPWS and IWDG – people who could take the lead in developing situations.

The newly-formed ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group’ decided to hold monthly meetings and invite Simon Berrow, founder of the IWDG, to provide specialized training for members on how to best help stranded whales and other cetaceans and to meet with a small working group on the same day to discuss further action. Clare-based Berrow is a full-time lecturer at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology teaching on the Applied Freshwater and Marine degree course and project manager of the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation.

After being contacted about the meeting, Berrow told the author of this blog, “We are delighted to hear of the formation of a local group. We look forward to working closely with them to prepare a better response to stranded cetaceans in the future and also to encourage local recording.”

Offshore toxic waste dumping? Military submarine activity?

At the same time, concerns regarding the health hazards to human life – as well as marine – from toxic dumping at sea and military submarine activity and experiments that may have caused the strandings have resurfaced locally.

dumping 2

Oceans that become graveyards for poisonous debris that pose dangers to human as well as marine life.

International regulations state that discharges of waste material – often poisonous by nature – should not be made within a certain distance of any landmass, according to the Seas at Risk. But who’s watching? Some major ports have cleaning facilities such as Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin, but this costs money so some incorrigible corporations say ‘why bother’? As the coast of Donegal is in direct line of most transAtlantic ocean traffic between Europe and the Americas, the amount of waste dumped offshore is probably immense, one respected scientist saying ‘enough to create mountains under the sea.’ Much of this material contains cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens) such as manganese, benzene, coal-tar, radium, petrolatum, parabens, vinyl chloride lead and zinc. With recent technological developments, many of these chemicals are in the form of deadly nanoparticles (particles less than the size of a human or animal cell) which, airborne, can then penetrate the cells, causing untold damage.

Nanoparticles: Technological and industrial development has outstripped health research into their potential dangers in everyday foods and consumer products.

Nanoparticles: Technological and industrial development has outstripped health research into their potential dangers in everyday foods and consumer products.

Could this be the cause or partial cause of disease in whales and other marine animals? Researchers say they have found large quantities of these chemicals in the whale tissue samples taken and tested. And doctors report larger than normal incidences of human cancer in local people.

In addition, some of the waste is in the form of non-biogradable plastics. Because they don’t dissolve but break up into smaller elements, these plastics have formed what scientists now call ‘plastic islands’ – often the size of countries, one is larger than the US state of Texas, which in itself is 17 times larger than Ireland – that float in our seas, causing disruption to the normal flow of currents. Consequently, the dangers to both human as well as marine animal health is high. For a long time, many people in northwest Donegal have suspected such dumping to have taken place offshore, with menacing results (see further information here).

A special group was established within the last two years at Ionad Naomh Pádraig in Dore by Freddie O’Donnell and Aodán Ó’Gallchoir to examine correlations between high levels of cancer in the Gaeltacht area and dumping of waste in coastal waters nearby. Known as ‘Scaoil Saor ó Ailse’ (Break Free from Cancer’), the group’s public relations officer, Joe Diver, said former local doctor Paddy Delap, said such waste was affecting peoples’ health, particularly cancers of the skin, lung and brain, with an abnormally high level of fatalities. A deep-sea diver then broke his decades-old silence on Raidó na Gaeltachta, describing how he found a large area of the sea bed littered with large black drums with hazardous signage on them in the waters off Tory Island, adding, “We were looking for shipwrecks, went down 40 to 45 metres and came across black drums with green stuff growing on them. There were a few thousand of them. They were heaped in a hill-like structure and had skull and crossbones on them. The diver said the drums would have since disintegrated and their hazardous material dissolved into the ocean off the Gaeltacht coast.”


Military submarine activity and experiments at sea: what are the hazards for Man, Plant and Animal?

Areas affected could include Gaoth Dobhair, Cloughaneely and The Rosses. Calls for greater funding for a more comprehensive analysis were ignored by the relevant authorities, mainly on the instructions of Dublin, some say for economic and political reasons. Further, fearing such research could stir up waves of protest if the result became known, efforts were made by authorities, mainly Fianna Fail, then in power, to trivialize what little had become known. Politics and money trumped peoples’ health and once again the ‘Forgotten County’ was forced to live up to its unfortunate title.

Damage control became main concern for a certain cadre of elite: the party in power in the Dail and its big-business supporters. “This situation has been going on for far too long,” said one medical practitioner who has treated cancer patients in the area. “It is long past time national funding was made available to investigate this situation thoroughly. If it happened in certain other parts of the country, it probably would already have taken place long ago. Surely the deaths of so many marine animals and the high number of cancers affecting people means the issue should be looked at very closely.  To some extent, it’s in the hands of ordinary people. They should be lobbying their government representatives by e-mail, phone and letter. If not, nothing will be done.”

Several of the whales at Ballyness beach were found to have lesions, blemishes and lumps on its skin, but National Parks and Wildlife Service officials declined to say where any disease may have originated. As whales are highly social creatures that travel in communities, some say healthy whales may have refused to abandon sick or injured pod members and followed them into shallow water. “We can’t say for certain,” said Pat Vaughan, district conservation officer for the NPWS. “What we do know is that whales and other marine animals can have high levels of certain toxic elements in their bodies.”


3 thoughts on “West Donegal whale protection group formed as threats to human health resurface

  1. This is very good news , our Wildlife people over the years have been in my opinion , a waste of time , they were never interested ! and when something like this happens there is nothing put in place to aid , either the locals or , what this is all about , the pods that get left to die ! Worse still they scare folks with their words of ( dont touch or try to help , because you will get ill ) rediculous ! and yes , we had better be very wary of what is going on off our shores , in regards to dumping during the war , of waste material , off of Donegal ! Good luck , I will be following !! as I live beside the sea !


    • Thank you Anne for your interest and your comment. Hopefully, the upcoming training on proper marine life protection protocols that will take place in August in west Donegal will help create not only a cadre of local, well-trained and committed persons but also greater education for the general public about the importance of our marine flora and fauna to our own lives. After all, their well-being remains the litmus test for our own continued health.


  2. I have received a message from a reader which I feel should be shared, so Paraic Greenan kindly agreed for me to do that:
    Hi Sean,
    By chance my wife Yvonne and I were passing through Falcarragh on the day of the stranding when we heard the news in a local shop. We headed down to the beach to find out more. When we arrived at around 12.30 there was about 20 or 30 people in the water helping to refloat a number of the whales. Yvonne went back to the car to get our wetsuits so that we could help in the rescue operation. By the time Yvonne returned with the wetsuits all the live whales had been refloated and the people in the water were trying their best to encourage them out to sea.
    We stayed for about 2 hours and spoke to a number of people on the beach. What we heard was that the rescue operation was being undertaken by local people with whatever resources they had to hand.
    Twelve stranded whales has been discovered that morning at about 7am, by a man out for an early run on the beach. He had raised the alarm and with local people’s help the whales had been put back in the water using a JCB and some tarpaulin. Three of the whales had headed out to sea but most of them stayed around as at least 1 or 2 were already dead or dying. By the time we arrived, five hours later, there were 4 whales dead on the beach, the 3 who had headed out to sea had not returned, and 5 animals had been successfully refloated. The concern on the beach was that these 5 were now heading into Ballyness bay rather than out to the open sea.
    I was surprised that there were no boats or even kayaks involved in the rescue.
    It was unclear if any public official or organisation was coordinating the rescue operation.
    I spoke to a representative from The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group( Dave Mc Namara??) who said that although his group had a scientific interest in the stranding, they were not involved or responsible for any rescue efforts. He also held the view that Nature should be allowed take its course; if stranded whales are refloated once and they beached again, then they should be left alone to die without any further attempts to rescue them.
    These sentiments were not too well received, however valid. One person I spoke to expressed the strong view that the whole affair was a shambles. He claimed that he had worked in the Dept.of Forestry and Wildlife and that he found it to be a very unprofessional setup. Of course this is all hearsay but we wondered whether there is any National strategy with procedures and protocols in place, to deal with these type of events.
    As we left the beach we met another man from the Whale and Dolphin Group( Brendan Quinn??) who was a lot more energised about saving the remaining whales. He told us that he had been surfing over at Maheroarty earlier when he had heard about the stranding. He had immediately come over and had helped in the refloat that we had observed. He told us that a pod pilot whales had been successfully rescued in Kerry after the dying animal had been humanely killed and taken from the water. With this in mind he wanted to do the same here, but couldn’t find a vet!!
    After speaking with Brendan I rang the Dept of Forestry and Wildlife and explained that I wished to speak to someone about the whale stranding here in Donegal. I was put on to Ciaran O’Keefe, a Principal officer, and told him about my concerns that there didn’t appear to be any official from his Department coordinating the rescue and asked him if he could provide any assistance with the operation. It was the first he had heard about the incident. Six hours later!! He went on to say that resources were scarce. When I pressed him further he said that he would follow up with his local staff at Glenveagh. He took my name and number but I didn’t hear further from him, or anyone else.
    We left the beach as there was nothing more we could do. It was also approaching full tide and we needed to move our car. We later met Jim Mercer, the man who had been out running and was the first to discover the stranded whales. We had stopped a few miles away on a headland looking back on Ballyness bay when he came over to talk to us. We could see that the whales were all now gathered together in shallow water. By this time, at about 2pm, two boats had arrived and were herding the animals out to open water.
    Days later we heard that all the whales had stranded again down the coast and sadly perished.
    I don’t know if any of the whales could have been saved.
    Perhaps if there had been a trained rescue team with better equipment on the scene much earlier?? But it was very distressing to see such magnificent animals in this situation.
    It does concern me that, in a country that was declared a whale and dolphin sanctuary many years ago, there doesn’t appear to be a unified approach to deal with incidents of this nature. And that a senior official in the Forestry and Wildlife Department is unaware of an incident of this scale, hours after the alarm has been raised,
    Click on the following link to see my photos from the day: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/8tmp9fp6dra2hf0/AABz5fuFN0geJdxUomLiYHh6a?n=113831985
    Kind regards
    Paraic Greenan

    Liked by 1 person

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