Pilot whales stranded at Gowlane Beach in Brandon Bay

12th Aug 2015

At 7.30am last Thursday 6th I received a call from Louise Overy about pilot whales that had stranded at Gowlane Beach in Brandon Bay. It being a short distance from my house I was on the scene shortly after the call. Upon arrival at the beach I could see that there were 3 stranded pilot whales all of which were facing out the sea. There were already some other people on the scene with more arriving. After assessing the scene and the condition of the animals, it was clear they were in a relatively good condition (minor scratches from trashing around no large wounds or signs of emaciation) one appeared to be less active than the other two displaying less thrashing movements and tail slapping than the other two. Time was ticking towards high tide at 10am after which refloating the animals would be impossible. Given the size of pilot whales all we could do for the time being was to try to keep pointing out to sea till more help arrived.

A photo posted by Aoife Dowd (@aoifedowd01) on Instagram

Once a few more people had arrived to help we managed to refloat two of the animals with very little difficulty and both swam off almost immediately. The third proved to be a more difficult affair as once we had refloated it immediately turned towards the beach and restranded. We quickly decided to try and refloat it and this time it swam off in a similar direction to the other two. While everyone at the beach was delighted with their effort and rightly so given the nature of strandings I couldn’t help but think we hadn’t heard the last of these whales. Sure enough about 30 minutes later at 10am I received a call again from Louise this time saying that 3 pilot whales had stranded near the pier in Brandon a short distance away. I went straight back as I knew if the animals were still stranded as the tide turned it would be almost impossible to refloat them.

Once I landed at the pier only two of the pilot whales were stranded in a rocky part of the beach, they were still in some water but appeared to be in precarious position. The third was circling a short distance away in deeper water and was for not in immediate danger. After consulting with Louise we decided that we needed to get the whales floating and out from the rocks facing out to sea. The pier was very busy as it often is on fine days and people were only too willing to offer help which was greatly appreciated and badly needed. Once we got the whales off the rocks and into slightly deeper water it was clear to me that they had the same markings on fins and tails as the three from Gowlane. However this time they repeatedly tried to strand against the rocks and we kept moving them off and out into slightly deeper water. As if trying to manhandle two pilot whales wasn’t enough the third one was now stranded as well. This one was fortunately refloated without much difficulty and with a Kayak escort began to swim back out the sea. By now the other two appeared quite exhausted and had stopped trying to strand. We were able to maintain their position in deeper water so they could swim if needed.

After hearing that that the first was successfully swimming away we increased our effort with the remaining whales which now had been resting for some time. Shortly after the first one had headed out to sea we managed to get a second whale heading in the same direction with the Kayak again escorting it, again this one swam out to sea without much difficulty following the first.

Another photo posted by Aoife Dowd (@aoifedowd01) on Instagram

The remaining pilot whale had remained motionless for a long time and although it continued to breath it seemed to be quite worn out. Then it began to swim but ended up blocked by the pier and it began to strand on the small beach between the pier and the slip. Given the crowds around now it seemed imperative to prevent this animal from stranding on the beach and enduring a stressful day until the tide rose again. With much help we managed to keep it from stranding on the beach but any effort to direct it out and around the pier were unsuccessful, as soon as we entered water out of our depth the whale would simply turn and head back into the side of the pier and towards the beach. It was clear to all involved that this animal was in a much worse state than the other two. After many efforts to get it out around the pier it was clear we needed assistance. Louise managed to get a small boat to lend its assistance. The plan we decided on was to place a sling around the whale which could be used by the boat to prevent the whale from turning back towards the beach while we were pushing it out to sea. The idea was that the boat wouldn’t pull the whale but would merely prevent it turning back towards the beach. We took great care to place towels and a large blanket around the animal before placing the strap around it. This worked perfectly as the whale was pushed/swam out around the pier, once clear of the pier Louise managed to remove the strap and whale with a new found sense of energy swam away in the same direction as the other two which by now were well out of sight. It was now around 2pm. We had expected it may try to strand as it swam away but reports from Brandon point were that it swam well clear of the headland. At the time of writing late on Monday 10th there has been no restranding or updates on the story which is I suppose a success.

All in all both stranding events were dealt with swiftly and efficiently, the help of the public was instrumental in both events, as the training received from the Irish Whale and Dolphin Groups Live Stranding course.