Live stranding events are rare, with around 10 reported annually to IWDG. In Ireland 13 species have been recorded live stranded but three species: common and striped dolphin and pilot whale, account for 50% of all live stranding events.
Mass strandings, where more than one cetacean strand are not uncommon and four species: common, striped and Atlantic white-sided dolphin and pilot whale account for 80% of mass stranding events.
Live stranded cetaceans have been recorded on all coasts but with concentrations along the Cork coast, West Kerry and North Mayo. The high numbers reported in Co. Cork are probably due to observer effort but West Kerry and North Mayo seem to be susceptible to live and mass strandings, which may be related to coastal topography or other localised features.
Pelagic or offshore species often strand in
good nutritive condition, with no apparent wounds or lesions, whereas
coastal species are generally diseased or in poor condition.
Is it alive or dead?
This is the first major question as in some large cetaceans there can be a period of 20 minutes or more between breaths. Breathing is determined by watching for the opening and closing of the blowhole (fig 1).
A guideline is as follows:
Small Cetaceans (eg. porpoise or common dolphin):
Normal breathing rate = 2-5 breaths/min.
Medium Cetaceans (eg. pilot whale):
Normal breathing rate = 1 breath/min.
Large Cetaceans (eg. sperm whale):
Normal breathing rate = up to 1breath per 20mins.
In the case of large cetaceans it may be necessary to test for a palpebral reflex by checking whether there is any response to putting light pressure on the eyelid (NOT the eye).
If it is dead or dies during attempts to rescue it then please report it as soon as possible to the IWDG Strandings Scheme.
It is important that a post-mortem is carried out on any dead cetacean before it is buried.
If the animal is alive
Which species is it?
It is important to identify the species as this will have major implications for the prognosis of a successful refloating. Generally inshore species which strand (such as harbour porpoise and bottlenose dolphin) have a much poorer recovery prognosis than offshore species (such as striped or white-sided dolphins). Also the prognosis for the majority of animals involved in mass strandings is higher than for those which strand alone.
Don’t Panic and Don’t Move It!
Dolphins and whales are quite capable of living out of water for some time (with a little help). In some cases dolphins or smaller whales have been successfully refloated even after being held for several days on shore.
More harm than good is often done during rushed attempts to refloat a stranded cetacean so DO NOT attempt to push or drag the animal back into the water without first seeking professional advice. Never attempt to drag an animal back into the water by it’s tail, it will most likely kill or maim it.
Stabilise the Animal
The main aim is to ensure that the animal can breath and will not overheat or become too stressed.
- Support the animal in an upright position if possible, digging trenches under the pectoral fins (fig 1)
- Keep the animal moist by covering it with wet blankets or towels, sprayed or doused with a constant supply of water
- Do not cover or obstruct the blowhole(fig 1) and make every effort to keep sand and water away from the blowhole
- In sunny weather try to provide shade for the animal by erecting a tarpaulin above it
- In very cold or windy weather, try to erect a windbreak around the animal
Care should be taken around the tail fluke (fig 1) of the animal as a
thrashing cetacean can maim or kill. Also minimize contact with the
animal (use gloves if contact is necessary) and avoid inhaling the
animals expired air
- All noise, contact and disturbance around the animal MUST
be kept to a minimum. Erect a rope barrier to cordon off the area
(apart from essential personnel caring for the animal) and ask the
Gardai/Police to assist with crowd control at the scene
beachmaster should be appointed to liaise with Gardai and media and
control onlookers, and to ensure that the veterinary and rescue teams
can get on with the job, without unnecessary interference
further steps towards rescuing the beached animal must be taken only
after seeking the advice and support of experienced IWDG Personnel.
Initial assessment may indicate what caused the stranding and whether the animal is a suitable candidate for a re-float attempt. With species such as sperm whales that may breathe as little as once every 20-40 minutes, assessing whether the animal is alive or dead may require soliciting reflexes from blowhole or corneal movement.
Knowledge of the species and size of the animal can help you assess whether the animal is pelagic or coastal, or a separated newborn calf. Under no circumstances should attempts be made to refloat calves that are likely to be unweaned.
Body condition can be assessed by examination of its
body profile, especially the extent of the lumbar muscles and any
external lesions. Breathing rates (typically 2-5 per minute in
dolphins), less for whales, will help you assess whether the animal is
stressed. Core body temperature will indicate if the animal’s condition
is critical or terminal.
Options in Ireland are restricted to re-floating or euthanasia, as no facilities for rehabilitation exist. Only animals in good body condition and free from significant lesions or illness should be refloated.
Euthanasia may be the best option for small cetaceans, but should only be considered with veterinary guidance. Euthanasia is not an option for larger whale species, which should be allowed die naturally. The best way to euthanase is through administering drugs, which should only be done by a vet. Shooting is not a preferred option as it can be difficult to execute (minimum .303 rifle) and distressing for the animal and onlookers.
In mass stranding events, those animals unlikely to survive should be euthanased and animals suitable for re-float should be re-floated together. County Councils are responsible for disposal of dead cetaceans, but only after the vet has confirmed they are dead!
No animals should be buried until scientists from the IWDG, UCC or another academic institution have had an opportunity to examine them as we can learn a lot from each stranded animal.
Refloats should be attempted on rising tides, once the cetacean’s equilibrium has been restored, which may take several hours of stabilising in cold water.
to release, the animal’s behaviour should be monitored for several
hours to ensure re-stranding does not occur. Transport of an animal to a
different release site should only be carried out if it is essential
and if it can be done in under 2 hours.
IWDG policy is to report all live stranding incidents to local Dúchas Conservation rangers. The IWDG will assist rangers by providing advice on best practice and making IWDG equipment including the whale rescue pontoon available to them.
The IWDG have published a list of contacts and resources available for circulation to coastal rescue services and communities, to aid an efficient and informed response to live stranding incidents.
In the event of a live stranding, decisions will often have to be made by those on the beach and in reality there may be little back-up. People should try and do what is best for the cetacean and not for themselves, which may involve euthanasing the animal or letting it die instead of re-floating it at any cost.
A re-floated animal is not necessary a rescued animal.
Sometimes, allowing an animal die on a beach has to be considered a
successful outcome to a live stranding.
North Coast/Northern Ireland.
For advice and on-site assistance (where possible).
Tel: 048 7034 7282
For advice and on-site assistance.
Tel: 087 2977931.
For advice and on-site assistance.
Dr. Emer Rogan
Tel: 087 699 5314
Tel: 086 3850568
For advice and on-site assistance (where possible). Also Rescue Pontoons.
Dr. Simon Berrow
Tel: 086 8545450.
The IWDG also has a network of Local Contacts who will offer help and advice and (where possible) assist on site.
Finally you should also contact your local wildlife/heritage officer.
National Parks and Wildlife service.
Tel: (01) 647 2404.
Dúchas are the competent authority responsible for the conservation of cetaceans. All cetaceans are protected under the Wildlife Act (1976) and this prohibits excessive disturbance, harassment etc. Breaking the Wildlife Act, by attempting to “do your best” is not defensible and is illegal.
In practice, it is unlikely that a prosecution will be forthcoming, but in the event of a live stranding people should try and implement best practice.