Common dolphin live stranding in Doonaha, Co.Clare on August 2016

11th Sep 2016

On the 16th of August 2016, researchers from the IWDG and Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation (SDWF) were called to a live-stranding of two common dolphins in Doonaha, Co. Clare.  A member of the public, Aidan Peacock, had come across the dolphins, which turned out to be a mother-calf pair, and contacted Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt who promptly contacted local IWDG Officers.

Meadhbh Quinn and Gary Kett were in the area for a Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation (SDWF) dolphin monitoring survey and promptly attended the scene. En route, they informed the rest of the researchers who were at the Shannon Dolphin Centre at the time of the incident and location and that they were heading there immediately.

Upon their arrival, there were about 10 members of the public on the beach with the two dolphins, who had already been covered with wet towels. They assessed the condition of the individuals and advised the others there to approach the animals calmly, not to overcrowd the animals, and to avoid pouring water into the blowholes. Respiration rates were taken from the beginning to help with assessing the individuals’ stress levels and general condition. Initially, the respiration rates were quite high, but gradually became lower indicating that the animals were becoming less stressed.  The towels were repositioned to put less stress on the dorsal fins of the animals and not to cover the eyes. Both of the animals looked to be in good external condition, with no obvious injuries or signs of harm.

Meadhbh and Gary spoke to the members of the public about the species and the stranding. They discussed all the options that arise in these situations and explained that in certain situations, a refloat is not always the best option for the animals, as strandings should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

The rest of the SDWF team (Isabel Baker, Stephanie Linehan, Jamie Phillips, and Emer Keaveney) arrived shortly after with the equipment. The area between the dolphins and the public was fenced off to avoid anyone approaching too close to the animals. Umbrellas were put up to protect the animals from direct sunlight. Efforts were also made to contact several vets and the nearest NPWS ranger. Contact was successfully made with the IWDG Sightings and Strandings Officers for advice and guidance.

In the meantime, the terrain was assessed by Isabel and Meadhbh for possible routes for re-flotation, should this be an option. The terrain in the area was very rocky and slippery and the water was about 600 m from the animals’ stranding position. Re-floating the animals at that point could have resulted in injury to humans or the dolphins.

The tide started to come in and it became apparent that it would come in further than the dolphins’ location. Due to the length of time the animals had been on the beach, it was quite possible that they would have severe cramping and would not be able to swim unaided, resulting in potential drowning were the water to cover them. As no vet was yet on site, and with few options remaining, the decision was made to attempt a refloat.

The crowd, which was now composed of around 40 people, including some who had already put wetsuits and waders on, were briefed on safety and the methods which would be used to re-float the animals. Those not directly involved were asked to stand back on the beach.  Teams of four people for each dolphin were assembled. Using tarps, rolled up on one side, the animals were gently positioned for carrying, taking care to tuck the pectoral fins against the animals’ sides to avoid injury or discomfort. The mother and calf were carried together towards the water and the teams kept them side-by-side for the duration of the re-float to attempt to reduce any further distress.

The teams walked out to waist-high water near a high rock where they could establish a line of communication and could be directed by those of the team remaining on land. This gave a birds-eye view of events which helped the team to have a broad view and work together. Members of the public also stood on the rock to watch the scene, but were advised of the incoming tide and to be mindful of their own safety.

In bringing the animals out into the water, the water teams faced the dolphins towards the open water and protected their blowholes from incoming waves. While in the water, the mother and calf were slowly and gently rocked from side to side on the tarp in order to restore circulation and to help relieve the cramping in their muscles. The times of each step of the process were recorded by the land-based team. After about 45 minutes, the mother’s team tried letting the tarp loose beneath her in deeper water to see if she could keep afloat and maintain breathing by herself. The calf seemed less responsive and kept listing to one side.

After about an hour, the mother’s tarp was lowered again and she began swimming slowly away from the beach. The calf’s tarp was also lowered at the same time and the calf began swimming towards the mother but then turned and started swimming in towards the beach. It swam into the shallows and the team guided it away from the rocks and further out again. At this point, the mother, who was about 100 m away, turned her body to face the calf, and may have vocalised to it as the calf then swam at speed and joined her. The pair started swimming southeast and then milled around before heading west. They appeared to be moving in quite a lethargic way but were still steadily moving west. The land-based team continued to spot them until they were out of sight.

Thanks so much to everyone who helped out on the day including Aidan Peacock, Niall McGrath, Dave O’Shea, Sharon Collins, Jack Collins, Sean Ferguson and Caolán Hennessy. Thank you also to everyone for their patience and respect for the animals over the course of the day.

Why do cetaceans strand in the first place?

There are a number of reasons why cetaceans may live-strand such as faulty navigation, disease or poor health, pursuit of prey, assisting other animals in the group or due to anthropogenic causes. It is unclear in this case why these animals stranded.

When faced with a live-stranding, there are three possible courses of action; to return the animal(s) to the sea and attempt to refloat, to allow it to die naturally, or to humanely euthanise it.  However, each stranding should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and the situation surrounding the stranding will dictate what action should and can be taken.  Factors include: the type of stranding (single or mass), the species involved, the size of the animal(s) involved, the state and health of the stranded animal(s), the nature of the coastline and terrain, and the weather conditions.

In this case, the decision was made to refloat as the animals appeared to be in good external condition, and the tide had come in high enough to allow a refloat to be undertaken safely for both dolphins and humans. 

Photos were taken of the animals’ dorsal fins, to enable them to be identified again in the event that they re-stranded.  There have been no reports since of stranded common dolphins in the local area, so fingers crossed it was a happy ending for the pair!

By Isabel Baker and Meadhbh Quinn