Whale sightings off Donegal coast encourage educational and tourism efforts

Approaching within 30 feet of a minky whale out on the Atlantic takes courage – but such is his concern for the welfare of local marine life that’s exactly what Gareth Doherty did recently.

With the sighting of so many such baleen whales off the northwest Donegal coast over the last few weeks, Doherty, a skilled seaman (he manages Selkie Sailing in Gaoth Dobhair) and knowledgeable environmentalist, realized it would be a prime opportunity to try to identify them and monitor their movements and thus understand better the thriving whale population off Irish coastal waters.

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“It is only by recording the twenty-four cetacean species recorded thus far in Irish waters that we can protect them,” he said. “The fact that so many are now visiting us is wonderful news.”

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Doherty also believes that greater numbers of such healthy marine animals locally means greater opportunities to both educate people about this vital segment of sea-life and strengthen environmental tourism efforts throughout Donegal.

Here is yet another local cultural tourism-cum-educational project worthy of financial support. Udaras na Gaeltachta, the state-sponsored economic support group in the area, has refused to pay for much-needed equipment for Selkie Sailing.

Readers of this blog and of a series of articles I penned for the Donegal News will remember Gareth for the sterling work he and others did to bring important publicity about the plight of a pod of stranded whales at Ballyness beach in Falcarragh earlier this year.

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Not only did Gareth and colleagues highlight the stark inadequacies, both in equipment and training, of the National Parks and Wildlife Service to deal with such incidents (it has since become known that Donegal wildlife officials didn’t even take sample tissue from any of the dead whales to ascertain what may have stranded them and led to their slow suffocation) but they also banded together to organize marine lifesaving training programs for people that continue even now.

Visiting my Bun na Leaca home recently, Gareth said his intention was also to launch a series of educational visits to local schools to make presentations about the importance of marine life around our shores. It is an excellent idea and there seems no more qualified and enthusiastic a person to host such a program than Gareth.

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Minke whales grow to about nine meters in length, weigh around 10 tons and can live about 50 years. Their bodies are dark grey to black on the back and lightening to white on the belly and undersides of the flippers. There are often areas of light grey on the flanks, one just above and behind the flippers and the other behind the head. Those in the northern hemisphere usually have a diagonal white band on the upper surface of each flipper. Smallest of the seven great whales, minkes often enter estuaries, bays and inlets and feed around headlands and small islands.

Updates can be checked on Selkie Sailing.

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group assisted with local training programs.

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Stranded pilot whales buried alive?

Below is a more extensive story to the one I wrote for the front page of yesterday’s (Monday) ‘Donegal News’ on the seeming lack of co-ordination, expertise and simple know-how that led to the tragic deaths of a pod of 12 young and adult pilot whales from slow suffocation at Ballyness beach near Falcarragh last week.

Following public outcry over how 12 pilot whales were left by conservation officials to suffocate over the last week at a west Donegal beach, talks have been initiated between the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS) over alleged mistreatment.

In a message from the founder and executive officer of IWDG, Professor Simon Berrow voicing concerns over the handling of some of the stranded whales at Ballyness beach near Falcarragh and the need for an immediate meeting with the NWPS.

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Wildlife service and Donegal county officials on whale death watch

One wildlife service official, who declined to be named out of fear his job would be in jeopardy, acknowledged “it was a disgusting situation, terrible decisions were made,” adding “management heads at the service should roll over this debacle.” The official added, however, that calls were made to the IWDG seeking guidance and were not returned. “Where were the experts when we desperately needed them?” the official added. “We could have done with that, a simple phone call back to talk us through what we should do. Even a picture, a video on a smart phone would have helped.”

It is believed internal reports – mainly critical of the overall operation at Ballyness beach – are to be submitted within the next few days to higher levels of national management within the wildlife service. “We have so many lessons to learn for this mess,” one official said.

Referring to two stranded pilot whales – highly-intelligent members of the dolphin family – that were helped back into the water by Gareth Doherty, local environmentalist and wildlife enthusiast with Selkie Sailing in Derrybeg, Berrow wrote: “Gareth, well done with all your efforts on the beach. These whales should have been euthanized after they re-stranded. It is not that difficult. Pentabarbitone or shooting would have been effective. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group are seeking a meeting with NPWS to try and establish who is legally responsible for managing these live stranding events. IWDG think it is NPWS. It is simply not good enough to say there was nothing that could be done.”

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Tortured whale draws its last breath.

In contrast, Pat Vaughan, a local district conservation officer for the National Parks and Wildlife Service in charge of the stranded whale operation at Ballyness, said during the week that ‘mercy killing’ could not be used as “it is hard to find the drug and no vet has been trained locally to administer it as it requires special skill.” Vaughan acknowledged that no vet was consulted before the decision was made to allow “nature to take its course” and the whales to suffocate. “No vets are trained for this kind of thing here in Donegal,” he said. “No local vets want to be involved in situations like this.”

The Donegal county vet nor any of his associates offered to help deal with the tragic situation. This being the case, with no expert advice on hand, wildlife and environmental officials say it is quite likely some whales were buried alive. “Without the proper training and because the mammals are so large, knowing when they have died is not easy,” one official said. “What might have happened doesn’t bear thinking about. Their agony must have been excruciating.”

The message on the Selkie Facebook left by Berrow – a national expert on marine life who is a full-time lecturer at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and has worked with the British Antarctic Survey and the International Whaling Commission – reflects confusion surrounding the handling of the situation at Ballyness beach. His communication highlights the lack of clear policy on such incidents in Ireland, not only with regard to which organization should be in charge but how to conduct a proper assessment about how the whales should be treated. After founding the IWDG in 1990, Berrow also helped establish the Irish Basking Shark Study Group in 2009.

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Environmentalist and wildlife lover, Gareth Doherty, tries to assist struggling whales at Ballyness beach.

A clear SOP (standard operating procedure) for dealing with whale strandings has become ever more important in Donegal as the ‘Ballyness tragedy’ is the 13th such incident in the county this year, not to mention the pod of 32 whales that died in Rutland Island two years ago that were cut up and transported to Cavan for incineration. A minke whale’s body was discovered off Bloody Foreland and left there on the rocks below a cliff to rot for two months and sperm whale was washed up on Magheraroarty beach and died.

“Statutory bodies – health, county officials, the Gardai, the coastguard, the whale and dolphin, wildlife services – we all need to sit down and work out what should be done and by whom in such situations,” said Vaughan, who added, “Our (the wildlife service) remit is just to measure the whales, identify the species and take blood and tissue samples.”

In a further development, the international Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) group, active in over 25 countries globally, said after being contacted that it had provided the IWDG with a formal protocol procedure for cetacean (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) strandings. That policy clearly states, “IWDG will normally only consider reflotation after looking at individual circumstances (eg coastal or offshore species, body condition, location etc) and recommends consultation with an experienced veterinarian.”

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Outdated protocol? Wildlife service official watches on while whales die slowly from suffocation.

In addition, those in charge at Ballyness could have availed of one the IWDG’s ‘live stranding kits.’  These kits are located in three strategic places around the country and “are designed to cater for animals up to 4m long and contain air mattresses, tarpaulins, veterinary equipment, torches, buckets etc. The pontoons are used for reflotation of larger animals, to about 6m in length, and if necessary, the smaller kits may be used to stabilize these animals while waiting for the pontoons to arrive.” Reports indicate that no such equipment was brought to Ballyness beach nor concerted efforts made to transport the whales back to deeper water. None of these three locations is in Donegal, even though so many whale strandings take place here every year.

Also, while in other parts of Ireland, the coastguard service is used to bring stranded whales out to sea to try to save them, in Donegal last week, the service was not asked to do this. “We follow best practise but bringing them out to sea is a futile exercise,” said Vaughan. “Rules are rules. We have to follow protocol.”

While in other parts of the world people assist in saving stranded whales, (see video of a humpback whale successfully rescued after being beached for 38 hours in Australia), at Ballyness beach wildlife authorities in charge deliberately discouraged people from helping, with one woman who was bathing a dying whale’s eye in saltwater to comfort the mammal was told to leave the scene or she’d be forced to do so.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people who arrived at the scene of the carnage at Ballyness, many of whom came there to help, were left disgusted at what they witnessed, as reflected in letters to the editor printed in local newspapers and on-air radio and television comments. Their concern for better co-ordination and more humane treatment of the mammals, including euthanasia where necessary, is being harnessed in a special petition that has been launched HERE. It is a petition well worth signing.

In a future blog: Toxic waste dumped at sea off Donegal’s coast – hazard to human as well as marine animal health? The inside story.