Scuba-diving plankton make Donegal waters sparkle

Ever seen luminescent plankton sparkle at night like scuba-diving fireflies?
If not, then maybe you should take an island tour with Captain Gareth Doherty of Selkie Sailing as I did several days ago on his 22-foot Drascombe long boat.

Land ahead! Captain ‘Columbus’ Doherty’s first sighting of America, or some such landmark (Photo courtesy Selkie Sailing).

Setting off from what I call ‘Ernie’s Place’ (Bun An Inver harbor, opposite Teac Jack) just as the sun was setting, we headed across tranquil water to Sceard Iompainn (Umfin’s Blowhole) near Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin (Duggan’s Sea-Arch), its russet-red rocks sliding smoothly to the sea.
sunset on the wild atlantic way, Donegal boat trips,
Interestingly, as Pól Ó Muireasáin, our Gaelic linguist on board, pointed out, the island of Iompainn may have derived its name from the older spelling, ‘Iompthoinn,’ meaning ‘turning wave.’ Opposite Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin is where I normally fish off the side of my boat ‘Radharch na Coco’, catching sizeable pollock, but also losing plenty of lures and weights in the process, tangled in the heavy seaweed there.
Pól Ó Muireasáin, Gareth Doherty, Selkie Sailing

(l to r) Sea-mates Gareth Doherty and Pól Ó Muireasáin enjoy a light-hearted moment. Photo by Sean Hillen

Dare I say it for fear of ridicule, but once I even lost a fine rod there – left unattended in the stern of the boat, a group of conspiratorial avenging fish dragged it down to the murky depths before I could scamper back and rescue it.
From Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin, we floated gently on the placid surface for a while indulging in a spot of fishing while marveling at the glittering plankton in the water beside us dancing mightily as if high on ecstasy at a fairy rave party.
Our night tour then took us to Gola (Gabhla – the place of the fork, alluding to the two hills as seen from the mainland); Tororragaun (Tor Uí Arragáin, Harrigan’s Outcrop); Inishmeane (Inis Meáin, Middle Island); and Inishsirrer (Inis Oirthir, East Island).
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A chat at sea with local coastguard, Joe Curran (in orange) and Antonia Leitner from Austria (front left) helps pass the day away. Photo by Sean Hillen

There’s nothing as peaceful on a lovely evening than to be on a boat on calm seas in good company, chatting idly about this and that. And that’s exactly what we did, with subjects ranging from the fate of the Irish language to the wealth of wildlife off Donegal’s shoreline and Gareth’s peck on the nose from a nervous gannet (And, on a more cultural vein, needless to say Daniel ‘Travolta’ O’Donnell’s chances of capturing the Sam Maguire Cup of classical dance for the glory of Donegal – just joking).
Several things impressed me about Strabane-born Gareth Doherty on this trip.
The slim, bearded sailor loves the sea and all things associated with it, including a heartfelt concern for the environment and the birds and sea creatures that inhabit it.
 As a keen naturalist, the bird and wildlife around the coast here is truly spectacular,” he says. “And there’s so many different ways to enjoy them. Every time I cast off from the shore I have a feeling of anticipation, knowing the rewards that await me. The moment I switch off the engine and hoist sail, this transformation encapsulates for me an ancient tradition.”
Fishing on Wild Atlantic Way, Gareth Doherty

Gareth hand-catches a 15-pound sunfish near Umfin. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Illustrating his concern for wildlife, Gareth and his wife, Amanda, from Sunderland, helped establish the ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group’ consisting of local like-minded people keen to learn how to save stranded sea mammals. The initiative followed the ill-treatment of a pod of 13 pilot whales left to suffocate after five days on Ballyness beach near Falcarragh. It was the 13th such stranding last year in Donegal.
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Gareth’s son, Aran, watches over a young Great Black-backed Gull. The bird’s tongue got tangled in fishing lure, which Gareth skillfully removed. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Gareth, who lived in Black Isle, near Inverness and Dunoon in Argyll before moving to Donegal seven years ago, (his three children are named after Scottish islands – Skye, Rona and Arran) is a gold mine of marine information.
Well-qualified – he is a dinghy instructor, day-skipper, offshore yachts-master and is trained in advanced power-boating – his deep knowledge ranges from details on wildlife to be found around the Continental Shelf lying 50 miles off the Donegal coast to the characteristics of the waxy oil that dripped from a sperm whale stranded on Magheraroarty (Machaire Rabhartaigh) beach several weeks ago.
The 44-year-old’s passion for the sea originates in great part with his grandfather, Paddy McCauley, who spent much time in Inver, Donegal. “As he was a keen sailor and fisherman, some of my earliest memories are of being on the sea,” he recalls.
Now Gareth has transformed his indefatigable passion into a creative entrepreneurial venture. Aside from the Drascombe long boat, Selkie Sailing, based in Derrybeg, has many other craft – a gaff rig, topper sailboats, a catamaran, kayaks, a rib and a banana boat: more than enough to host guests on adventurous excursions among the many islands, sea arches and caves. Sailing classes take up much of Selkie’s activities.
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Gareth caresses a blue shark, four miles off Inishsirrer near the wreck of the steamship, Boniface, torpedoed during World War One. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Gareth says different seasons bring different sights. “Spring sees a migration of Arctic Skuas, Sandwich Terns and Gannets with occasional rare visitors like the Short-Eared Owl,” he explains. “Summer days are filled with the song of the Skylark and ground-nesting birds like Oyster Catchers and Ring Plovers, with sea-cliffs harboring colonies of shags, cormorants and fulmars. Chances of seeing an otter, a basking shark, a bottlenose dolphin or a porpoise are higher then. With autumn come Sandlins and Dunlins while seal pups rest on the rocks and the sandy beaches of the islands. Brent and Barnacle Geese rule winter, taking advantage of the sea swells to feed. Sometimes, a long-tailed duck may make an appearance.”
Two proposed projects excite Gareth. One is in education – to teach children in local schools about the marine environment and its sea and air inhabitants. The other focuses on Minke whales. “They’ll start to appear over the next month and I’ve organised two underwater photographers and a cameraman on a drone helicopter to shoot their behaviour,” he says excitedly. “It may be the first time this has ever been done in Ireland.”
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Efforts by Amanda and Gareth Doherty aim to save many stranded whales, dolphins and other sea life such as this.

As to the name ‘Selkie.’ It’s a mythical creature; half man, half seal which comes on to the land and removes its outer layer of skin to reveal itself as a beautiful, dark-eyed human. Like the mermaid, selkies have been both praised and feared. Stories describe how they helped sailors in rough storms but also how they lured people into the sea. Another yarn tells of a man stealing the skin of a female selkie to trick her into being his wife.  
As Selkie Sailing’s motto states – “Where the shore ends, the advenure begins,’ you never know, perhaps a trip with Gareth might end up in a fortuitous meeting with one of these intriguing creatures.
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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.

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).

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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.