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.

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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.

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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?

 

LATEST NEWS (FRIDAY 2 PM)

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.