End to the Baltimore fin whale saga

31st Oct 2012

Update IV, 31/10/12...the end of the road!

Last week on 24th October, the Baltimore fin whale carcass was towed out to open water between the Bill of Cape Clear and the Fasnet Rock, West Cork and sunk with 3 tonnes of wagon wheels (not the Cadbury's variety).  With her, went any chance of salvaging the skeleton, which we feel is a shame as it could have been a wonderful community resource that would have benefitted local tourism, as well as being a fantastic educational and conservation amenity.  

Alas, it seems that a well orchestrated but ill- informed group across the Bay won the "shouting match" and convinced local Cork Co. County representatives to have it removed from the Carthy Islands area, in Roaringwater Bay and towed out to sea.  Some of the arguments for this course of action bordered on the bizarre, but it seems the lobbyists had sourced some "authoratitive papers" on the internet and their conclusion was that this whale represented a "toxic" timebomb.  Statements made without any evidence, such as ..“It is strongly evident that local wildlife in the immediate area is degenerating”, all helped fuel the mis-information, and were certainly news to the IWDG.

The reality is that there was no evidence that this carcass is/was" toxic". Fin whales, being baleen whales, are not apex predators, as they don't have teeth, so it is very unlikely that toxins would bio-accumulate in this specimen in a way that would pose any threat to local ecosystems, as might happen with say beluga whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, that accumulate sufficient toxins over their lives that they are classified as "toxic" when washed up on local beaches, and are disposed of accordingly.  This does not apply to migrating baleen whales.

Releasing gases in fin whale, Roaringwater Bay,  24th August 2012

In fact in an area where fin whales are relatively common, it would be very natural for an animal to die offshore, drift inshore and decompose in a place such as Roaringwater Bay. So the plan would have been following a natural progression, and one that has taken place since the beginning of time.  A quick look at the scientific literature shows results from several published studies that show a food source such as a large whale carcass can have a positive impact over a large area on an array of scavenger communities (and I'm not referring to people here) and microbial activity, which can last many years. So despite the rumours, this rotting carcass was far more likely to represent an ecological boon to local wildlife and ecosystems. 

Wildlife isn't always fluffy and pretty and those fortunate enough to live in wild and wonderful places need to embrace the fact that animals die and when this happens to large ones, such as whales, we will on occasion need to rely on nature's "undertaking services", to do what we can't. This was one such instance. 

While walking with a local Timoleague farmer out to the live fin whale stranding in Courtmacsherry Bay (skeleton now on display in Kilbrittain) some years back, I was chatting to him about the background to this stranding event and what years of IWDG research on fin whales was telling us, in terms of their numbers, the trends, movements etc. He nooded sagely and said.."sure tis the same as farming, as when you've got livestock, you've got deadstock".  I've quoted this on many occasions over the years, and wish everyone could be as pragmatic. Fin whales off West Cork coast, © Pádraig Whooley, IWDG

On a slightly more upbeat note, in the past week both fin and humpback whales have made a welcome return to the waters adjacent to Roaringwater Bay, with sightings in the past 3 days off Cape Clear, Baltimore/Spain area, the Kedge, Toe Head and east towards Galley Head. Reports from Ardmore & Helvic Heads in Co. Waterford, suggest they are now widely dispersed along our South coast. See daily sighting updates on this site  These wonderful large whale sightings (the fluffy part) are however a reminder, that the next large whale stranding may only be around the corner. It's not so much a matter of, if, but when, and local coastal communities would do well to plan ahead for such an eventuality.

That said, it is difficult to plan ahead or devise a protocol for something that may occur only rarely in any one place. Each stranding is so different, as it depends on a range of variables, such as: species, size, access, condition of carcass, weather, and of course whether the local community can work together to make the most of this rare opportunity.  In this instance "NIMBYISM" appears to have won out...but for sure, there will be plenty more opportunities for salvaging whale skeletons around our coast.

In the meantime, we can only hope that 3 tonnes of wagon wheels can keep 30 tonnes of whale on the seabed, and if it can't I only hope that those who lobbied for this course of action are willing to deal with the consequences, if the decomposing carcass washes up on their own backyard.

Pádraig Whooley
IWDG Sightings Co-ordinator


Update 3 @ 18.00 16/08/12:
Baltimore Fin Whale has died... It appears that after the heavy thrashing witnessed, and filmed, about 11am this morning that the whale is now dead. The IWDG have been talking to the Naval Service and the Army about attempting to shoot the whale and logistics were being put in place for this evening, so fortunately the issue has been resolved. The IWDG will be meeting with representatives of the Defence Forces, NPWS and Local Authorities to attempt to put in place a protocol on how to deal with this situation in the future. We have done this in the past but clearly this needs to be revisited.

This has been an unprecedented event, given its location, but whale populations are increasing and whales will die and no doubt we will be faced with a similar situation again in the future. The IWDG wish to thank all those who helped and supported us in our attempt to address this situation and encourage those who have been following the incident to join us and get involved.

Dr Simon Berrow, Executive Officer, IWDG

Update 2 @ 14.30 16/08:
The stranded whale in Baltimore harbour has not moved or breathed since about 12.30pm today. Simon Berrow from the IWDG spoke to the national media earlier and his conclusion is the whale must have died.

“The only way we can confirm for definite that it is dead is to check its corneal reflex in the whale’s eye, but we have not been able to get down into the water yet,” he said.

“It is a relief really, as we were all expecting it to die last night. It was very distressed this morning and we were beginning to consider alternative options to put it out of its misery,” he added.

Update 1 @ 12.00 16/08:
Day 3 of the stranded fin whale in Baltimore and it is still alive. As the whale is not actually on land but still floating, it could remain this way for days or weeks while it slowly starves or dies from its wounds. This is not acceptable. The initial response of non-interference was correct but the IWDG are now making enquiries about the option of shooting the whale. This is the only way to euthanse it as nobody could enter the water to administer a drug, even if we had one powerful enough, and it would not be possible to administer remotely. The IWDG is exploring the option with the Naval Services and the Army of the use of a high-powered rifle. It may take more than one shot but this might be the best cause of action.

The IWDG will take responsibility if no other agency or department is prepared to act. The whale is protected by a wide range of national and international legislation, enforced by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and although it is dying it is in the opinion of the IWDG, still there responsibility. Normally you require a licence from the Minister, and a derogation from these legal instruments, to interfere with a whale but this is an exceptional case and interference is necessary. This is an unfortunate episode and very distressing for all but we must do what is best for the whale and a swift end is probably the best action at this stage.

Original report:
On the morning of 14 August 2012, a c.15m young fin whale swam into shallow water beside Baltimore Pier in Cork. It remained there in distressed condition throughout the day and is still alive there today (15 August). Due to the public nature of the site and media attention, there are large crowds gathered to see the unusual sight of the second largest animal on the planet so close to shore. However, this is not quite the ‘nature’ spectacle that some people may be expecting but is in fact the distressing sight of an animal dying over a protracted number of hours.

The IWDG is a cetacean conservation organisation rather than an animal welfare organisation and doesn’t have the funding or resources to deal satisfactorily with live strandings. However, whenever possible, we do offer advice and voluntary assistance from our members to try and find the best course of action for the animal concerned and we do have access to two sets of rescue pontoons and some live stranding kits. The two overriding conditions are safety of helpers/onlookers and welfare of the animal.

There are three realistic options with each live stranding;

1.    Refloat: This option should only be considered where the animal has a good chance of recovery and has been assessed, preferably by a vet. In many cases, an animal strands because it is visibly injured or else is suffering from something which may not be apparent such as parasite burden, disease, internal injury etc. Refloating a cetacean correctly is challenging, potentially dangerous and requires plenty of help and perhaps equipment (wet/dry-suits, pontoons etc). Even with pontoons, a refloat is only possible with an animal up to around the size of an adult pilot whale (c.6m).

2.    Euthanase: In certain cases, in consultation with a vet, euthanasia may be considered. Some drugs used for large animal euthanasia in the UK are not available in Ireland as they are extremely toxic and the carcass must be disposed of very carefully to protect other animals which may feed on it. Euthanasia drugs used in Ireland must be used in quite large quantities for large animals. Shooting may be an option also but would need to be done by an experienced person taking into account public safety and the difficulty of quickly and cleanly shooting a large animal with deep layers of blubber and thick bone structure.

3.    Do Nothing: This may seem like an odd choice of option but there is a difference between doing nothing, and choosing to do nothing based on best appraisal of a situation. There is no point in doing something simply for the sake of needing to do something as it is likely that the animal will just suffer more.

If we look at the fin whale in Baltimore as an example, refloating is not an option – this animal weighs probably over 25 tonnes and could not be lifted safely – and towing using the tail stock is never an option due to damage/injury/stress to the animal. Euthanasia would be a very difficult choice – large doses of drugs would be difficult to administer through the thick blubber layer of a large, powerful, stressed animal in shallow water. Shooting would also be difficult due to the thick blubber layer and large bone structure and would only result in bullet injuries to the whale reminiscent of the book ‘A Whale for the Killing’. So, as is often the case with large cetacean strandings, we are left with the option of ‘doing nothing’ – to the whale anyway. In this  case, it is almost certain that the whale is going to die if it can’t escape to open water itself – so what we can do is treat it with some respect, give it space, don’t go near it, throw anything near it or do anything to increase the stress it is already under.

Think before you go down to see it – yes, it is a chance to see one of nature’s giants, but consider also that you or your family may find it a distressing experience.

We can ensure that the animal is not stressed more or abused by ensuring people are quiet, no barking dogs and certainly no handling or interference!

We ask you to please respect it and let it die naturally

Mick O’Connell
Strandings Coordinator
Irish Whale and Dolphin Group

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