Whale-protection group offers complimentary specialized one-day training in west Donegal

Meeting to take place at Teac Jack, Glassagh, this Tuesday (July 22) at 8pm

Officials with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) have offered to host a complimentary one-day whale life-saving course in Falcarragh, Donegal over the next month for those interested in helping any struggling mammals that become stranded on the county’s beaches.

To avail of this offer, please contact directly Simon Berrow, founder of IWDG at coordinator (at) iwdg.ie

In addition, as part of a larger lobbying campaign for changes to the government’s policy on cetacean strandings, a meeting is being organised at Teac Jack in Glassagh, Donegal, under the auspices of Selkie Sailing and Gareth Doherty, environmentalist and wildlife enthusiast. The meeting is due to take place this Tuesday (July 22) at 8pm.

The generous offer of training from the IWDG comes as the well-respected organization denied vehemently that any call was received from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) for help in dealing with the 12 stranded pilot whales that died at a west Donegal beach last week.

Berrow, who will visit west Donegal this weekend, said, “In contrast, it was someone from our group, Brendan Quinn, who called one of our senior members, Mick O’Connell, who in turn called the wildlife service in Glenveigh and got no response. Mick then called David McNamara, a wildlife service ranger, who went to the scene at Ballyness beach and observed the situation from a nearby hill with hundreds of people gathered around the beached whales. He then waited for them to leave the scene.”

Members of the family of pilot whales stranded off Ballyness beach, Falcarragh, Donegal, last week.

Members of the family of pilot whales stranded off Ballyness beach, Falcarragh, Donegal, last week. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Voicing his disappointment that Dave Duggan, the acting NPWS regional manager in Donegal, nor Pat Vaughan, a NPWS conservation officer, requested help from the IWDG, Berrow said, “No call was ever received by us asking for our assistance. We would have come up – or at the very least have given advice on the phone. We also have detailed guidance on our website about how to handle a stranded whale situation, which could have been easily accessed and followed. We could have saved some of these whales.”

He also said a statement by Vaughan that nothing could be done for the dying whales but “let nature takes its course” and let the 12 whales die from slow suffocation over five days is ”pure rubbish.”

Another pertinent question to be asked: Where was the state-funded Donegal county veterinary office, run by Charles Kealey, chief veterinary officer, and his staff in all of this? With the local and national media attention the situation received, they would have to have been deaf, dumb and blind not to have heard of the tragedy, and if concerned in any way, should have been at the scene pronto to assist. And definitely, to make sure whales were not buried alive, which expert sources say – without veterinary expertise – could well have happened.

In Berrow’s view, “Everything went pear-shaped because nobody, no group, took ownership of the situation. The wildlife service won’t take responsibility for stranded whales. The IWDG is a small NGO, manned mainly by volunteers but we help where we can. Lack of responsibility at Ballyness, Falcarragh, meant that well-meaning members of the public had to step in. Unfortunately, most of them did not have the proper expertise or training. People like Amanda and Gareth Doherty deserve great credit for what they did, and are still doing, to help protect our marine wildlife.”

Photo by Antonia Leitner

Stranded pilot whale at Ballyness beach, Falcarragh, west Donegal (Photo by Antonia Leitner)

Berrow said the IWDG offers training in both identification of cetaceans (mainly whales, dolphins and porpoises), as well as one-day courses on effective methods for dealing with stranded whales “but no-one in Donegal has asked us to do such training. We could bring the equipment, we even have a life-size, inflatable pilot whale that we use for simulating saving techniques. All we need is for someone to organise a venue and a place to stay overnight for trainers.” He said trained IWDG volunteers “are thin on the ground in Donegal.”

Berrow also said the Donegal wildlife service’s contention that there were no vets with sufficient expertise about whales and that no adequate drugs in the county to euthanize the 12 whales was also misleading. “I’d be shocked if there is not enough Pentabarbitone in Donegal. Anyway, they could have contacted us or the Dublin Zoo which uses the drugs on large animals such as giraffes or even Tony Patterson, the relevant officer across the border in Northern Ireland who I’m sure would have gladly helped.”

In the Republic of Ireland, Pentabarbitone is administered by “a 14 gage needle, the longest one possible, preferably over six inches.” Around 60 to 80 milligrammes are used per kilo of animal. Pilot whales are on average between 1,000 and 1,800 kilo.

Regarding the alternative option for euthanasia, Berrow said, “The wildlife service at Glenveigh Park – due mainly to the deer population – have several persons well-trained in gun and rifle use. Using a .303 calibre rifle with solid bullets fired through the blowhole into the heart chamber, the unfortunate whales could have been put out of their misery within two minutes, instead of them having to suffer for five whole days with blisters on their skin the size of footballs.”

An international petition launched last week calling for more humane treatment of stranded whales in Ireland has already attracted more than 200 signatures (see petition here)

Local people gather with Native American Indian Gary (White Deer) for special prayers and a blessing of family of whales that died at Ballyness beach, Falcarragh, Donegal (photo courtesy of Sarah Sayers).

Local people gather with Native American Indian Gary (White Deer) for special prayers and a blessing of family of whales that died at Ballyness beach, Falcarragh, Donegal (photo courtesy of Sarah Sayers).

Berrow said a small government grant was awarded to the IWDG for 2011-13 to run a stranded whale scheme but only to monitor the mammals and handle data on them. There has been no funding for training courses.  This year the contract went out to tender, then withdrawn in May. “With the increase in sightings of whales and dolphins off Ireland’s coast, it is crucial to have protocols and funding in place now,” he said.

He added that there is no national policy on taking tissue samples or conducting post-mortems on the mammals to find out what caused them to strand. “We have an agreement with the National History Museum and take samples wherever possible and place them there in a freezer,” he said. “But there should be a more concerted, organized effort by the relevant government authority.”

Meanwhile, Donegal Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty said, “I have huge concerns regarding the policy enacted by the National Parks and Wildlife Service when the pilot whales were beached in Falcarragh recently.” He added, “It is my belief that locals with knowledge in this area should have been assisted in their further attempts to rescue the whales and I commend them for their heroic efforts. I support the petition calling for this review of this policy and I have submitted a number of Questions to the Minister calling for this review, which are due to be taken tomorrow.”

Doherty has submitted several formal written questions to the Dail, including one viz-a-viz, “if there is an official policy in place within his Department which outlines the procedure for the rescue efforts of beached whales; if this policy is circulated to the various stakeholders such as Local Government and the NPWS and if the Minister will make a statement on the matter?”

Formal protocols and increased government funding are necessary to save the Irish whale population (Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing)

Formal protocols and increased government funding are necessary to save the Irish whale population (Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing)

A second question asks, “if it is best practice to allow beached whales to perish without any intervention in order to ease the suffering of the animal; if it is standard practice to prohibit volunteers from making rescue efforts ; if the Minister intends to review this policy in the near future in light of the distress of the whales beached in Falcarragh, Donegal recently and if the Minister will make a statement on the matter?”

A third question deals with lack of equipment, in which he asks for “the reasons why the necessary equipment was not available to the NPWS in Donegal to allow them to humanely put the beached whales in Donegal to death by chemical injection and if the Minister will make a statement on the matter?”

The worldwide organisation, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation group, active in over 25 countries globally, has also waded into the controversy, officials from its headquarters in the UK stating, “It’s a real shame that there is not a strandings network in Ireland as there is in for example the UK. Here there is an incredibly well set-up and coordinated network of volunteers (BDMLR) that are trained in what to do in the event of a stranding and are first responders to any live (and sometimes dead) stranding.”

It continued, “By having these volunteers in place around the country any whales and dolphins that strand have the best possible chance of being refloated and surviving the ordeal. In a nutshell, what needs to happen is a) Interested Irish citizens need to come together and try to recreate what has been achieved in the UK via BDMLR, and b) the Irish Government need to commit to providing funds to set-up a programme similar to the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) here in the UK.” (see HERE example of how strong organisation and proper protocols can save some members of the whale population).

Wailing for the death of majestic whales

Nothing is worse in life than waiting for death.

Especially if that death is an excruciatingly slow and painful one.

That’s why it was so heart-wrenching to watch a pod of 13 beautiful adult long-finned male and female pilot whales and their children suffocate slowly – over five horrific days – at Ballyness beach near Falcarragh this week.

Photo by Antonia Leitner

One of the stranded pilot whales, a highly-intelligent member of the dolphin family, lies struggling for breath on Ballyness Beach, Falcarragh, west Donegal.

Heart-wrenching because there must be – and is – another, more humane, way to deal, with such a tragic situation. And the Irish authorities, in their usual bumbling, bureaucratic manner, haven’t cottoned on to it.

In other countries, including those in Europe as well as Australia and New Zealand, people are encouraged to come with buckets of water and towels when whales become stranded ashore, to help them survive, to prevent their sensitive skin from being burned up, until efforts can be made to return them to the waters from which they came. At Ballyness, there were reports of the authorities actually turning people back from doing so, including a young woman who was bringing glasses of saltwater to pour over the eye of a dying whale.

Photo by Joe Boland

Local people look on helpless as a pod of pilot whales struggle to re-enter deep waters. Photo by Joe Boland

How ironic. After all, it is usually us, humans, that cause such tragic situations in the first place. Pilot whales, 16 to 20 feet in length and highly-intelligent members of the dolphin family, usually live offshore, following and feeding at a depth of between 2,000 and 10,000 feet along the corridor of the Continental Shelf, which lies around 50 miles off Tory Island, according to local environmentalist, Gareth Doherty. If you see them near shore something is badly wrong. Through the dumping of toxic waste in the ocean and from tolerating – often unauthorized – military submarine activity, both of which interfere with marine animals’ natural sonar systems, we force vulnerable whales, as well as dolphin and other species, into shallow water where they become trapped and struggle for breath. Think of yourself drowning – very, very slowly. Think of a plastic bag being pulled tight over your face and you trying to breathe, realizing the next breath might be your last. That gives you some idea of the torture our close cousin, the whales – mammals just like us – went through this week at Ballyness beach, west Donegal.

That’s tragedy in itself. Worse is that what happened this week could have been prevented. Or at least dealt with in a less cruel fashion.

whales 6

Coastguard Joe Curran (in orange) and Gareth Doherty talk to Austrian Antonia Leitner about whale activity in the area.

Unlike many countries, Ireland doesn’t even have a formal, official SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) in place so that the various organisations – Gardai, health authorities, Dongal County Council, National Parks and Wildlife, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group – know exactly what to do in a difficult situation like the one this week at Ballyness. Consequently, delays occur, and delays are crucial in such situations, literally the difference between life and death. Some authorities were telling people not to go near the whales, others were letting them do so. When asked about this, the inevitable response from wildlife and parks officials – most of which have a passion for animal safety – was that marine animals are protected in the wild in Ireland. However, stranded whales by the nature of the situation are obviously not ‘in the wild.’ Their response to this: ‘rules are rules, we have to follow protocol.’

In some countries, a task force has been set up and vets specially trained to deal with such large mammals in such distress, even to administer opiates as a mean of ‘mercy killing’ to put the unfortunate animals out of their misery. Not in Ireland, even though such a task force has been ‘under discussion’ for quite some time.

Photo by Joe Boland

Efforts underway by local environmentalists to try to save some of the struggling pilot whales. Photo by Joe Boland

Remember, the stranding and deaths of the 13 whales at Ballyness is not the only example. There have been 13 such whale strandings over the last year in Donegal. Not to mention the 32 whales on Rutland Island two years ago, all left to die, then cut up and transported to Cavan where they were burned in an incinerator. Have you any idea how much that whole operation cost? Tens of thousands of euro in hard-earned public money wasted by Donegal county council – money for the hire of JCB diggers and their drivers simply to be on stand-by – just waiting for the whales to die; costly overtime for Gardai and personnel of the National Parks and Wildlife – just waiting for the whales to die; transport trucks; butchers for the cut-up of the bodies; fees for incineration. That money could have been better used for proper equipment to try to push the whales back into the water – some would survive, others might not, but we’ve got to try. That money could have been used to purchase the opiates; for training of vets; for sending blubber samples to laboratories – as they do in many other countries – to find out what is causing the strandings in the first place.

It’s no wonder we Irish are the laughing stock of Europe, and beyond. It’s long past time Irish authorities faced up to their responsibilities in the proper manner. Whether it’s caring for our precious wildlife; dealing with crooked bankers; or organizing a bloody country-and-western music concert, we just seem to cock things up.

Photo by Joe Boland

Gareth Doherty, environmentalist and wildlife enthusiast with Selkie Sailing, Derrybeg, and colleagues, observe the efforts of pilot whales as they try to make their way back out to sea. Photo by Joe Boland

And we will continue to cock things up – until Irish people wake up, realize they’re being made a fool of and use their voices and their feet to put an end to it.

Instead of letting children bounce up and down on the backs of dying whales, as some parents did at Ballyness this week, or carving their names on their backs, what about people setting up a petition table at Falcarragh crossroads (and/or one online, I can help someone set this up)? Is there a better time to start than today, Friday, market day, and for the next few weeks, calling for changes in regulations to prevent toxic dumping, restrict military submarine activity and allow for more humane care of marine animals dying around our coast?



Search-and-rescue missions will continue this weekend as further sightings of beached whales and other species reach local coastguard stations. Bunbeg Coastguard Joe Curran and Gareth Doherty, with Selkie Sailing in Derrybeg, spent hours sweeping in and around the inlets of Gola, Owey, Inis Oirthir and Inis Meain islands seeking evidence of whales in difficulty to save them.

“They are wonderful species and deserve whatever help we can provide, like us, they’re of Nature,” said Curran, as he sped from fishing boats to sailing crafts enquiring whether anyone had seen unusual activity (see photo above).

Added Doherty, who managed with others, to push two of the dying whales back into the water for safety, “This tragedy highlights the need for all of us to be extra careful in how we treat the environment around us, whether that be land or sea. Some of the workings of Mother Nature are best left alone, but we can make our environment safer. Keeping our water, our beaches, clean of toxin poisons is key.”

Beached whales associated with sonar show evidence of physical trauma, including bleeding in their brains, ears and internal tissues, often symptoms that in humans seem a severe case of decompression sickness, or ‘the bends.’ Sonar may affect whales’ dive patterns, said Andrew Speer, conservation officer and volunteer with the Irish Whale and Dolphin group. Causes of death can also include weather conditions; diseases (viruses, brain lesions, ear or sinus parasites); underwater seismic activity (seaquakes); magnetic field anomalies; or unfamiliar underwater topography, according to Pat Vaughan, district conservation officer with the National Parks and Wildlife Service.