Over 50 pilot whales lost their lives on Sunday when they became stranded on a beach in northwest Scotland’s Isle of Lewis. According to marine rescuers, this incident marked the largest mass stranding event in Britain since 2011.
The British Divers Marine Life Rescue charity, which led the rescue efforts, reported that a total of 55 stranded whales, including adult whales and calves, were discovered on the beach on Sunday morning. Sadly, when the coast guard, police, and rescue volunteers arrived to provide assistance, the majority of the whales were already deceased. The response team attempted to administer first aid to the surviving whales, but the harsh wave conditions and shallow beach made it dangerous to refloat them. Consequently, by 3:30 p.m. local time, the decision was made to euthanize the surviving whales due to welfare concerns.
Only one whale out of the 55 managed to survive
The Western Isles Council, the local government, stated that this particular whale was one of two that had been successfully guided back out to sea. Tragically, the other whale eventually stranded itself again and did not survive, as confirmed by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue.
Saving a stranded whale’s life can be a challenging and urgent task. Pilot whales, which are related to dolphins and porpoises, can reach lengths of up to 24 feet and weigh as much as 6,600 pounds. When beached, they risk self-inflicted injuries due to their weight or the cutoff of blood circulation, leading to the release of toxins that can be fatal, according to marine biologists.
Daren Grover, the general manager of Project Jonah New Zealand, a charity specializing in whale strandings, stated that the stranded pilot whales were most likely all part of the same family, a closely-knit group that had been traveling together for many years.
The Zoological Society of London’s Cetacean Strandings Investigation Program, which has been active since 1990, has documented over 17,000 instances of stranded cetaceans, including pilot whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Just last autumn, there was a significant incident where 230 pilot whales were beached along the western coast of Tasmania.
In 2011, there was a situation where around 70 pilot whales became trapped in shallow waters near the coast of Sutherland, Scotland. Fortunately, a prompt response allowed for the successful refloating of 20 of these whales. However, the recent rescue efforts faced significant challenges from the beginning, as noted by Dan Jarvis, the director of welfare and conservation at the rescue charity.
A remote island off the northwest coast of Scotland
The location of the stranding posed considerable difficulties. The Isle of Lewis, where the incident occurred, is a remote island off the northwest coast of Scotland, accessible only by ferry or plane. This remoteness meant limited availability of volunteers and scarce equipment. Additionally, setting up communication channels became essential as there was no cellphone signal within a two-mile radius of the beach. The rescue operation required coordination among more than 50 responders, including volunteers, the coast guard, the police, and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.
The charity mentioned that the whale pod may have followed one of the whales ashore, possibly due to difficulties during birthing. Pilot whales are known for their strong social bonds, so when one whale encounters trouble and strands, the rest often follow.
According to the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (S.M.A.S.S.), pilot whales, being highly social creatures, are the species most susceptible to strandings. Nonetheless, the specific reasons for their accidental isolation can vary widely, as explained by marine biologists. Factors such as sonar interference or the guidance of a sick or injured whale can lead them astray.
To determine the cause of this particular stranding, a team from S.M.A.S.S. was working on Monday to collect tissue samples. However, reaching a definitive conclusion might take weeks or even months, as indicated by Mr. Jarvis.