In a race against tide and time

2nd Apr 2002 In a race against tide and time

Lorna Siggins, Marine Correspondent


The pilot whales which survived a beaching on the Co Kerry coastline recently should be miles out at sea by now, oblivious to the row they have left behind. Questions are now being asked about the rescue effort, which once again exposed the State's lack of commitment to the whale and dolphin sanctuary declared in Irish waters 11 years ago.

Some 18 mammals died in the stranding, which is believed to have occurred some time in the early hours of March 23rd on Aughacasla strand between Castlegregory and Tralee. It was not until after lunchtime that the frantic efforts of several local people translated into a call to the emergency services through the Fenit lifeboat and the Valentia Coast Radio Station. Kevin Flannery of the Department of the Marine, who is a founder of Dingle's Mara Beo aquarium, was alerted late that afternoon.

Working with the Fenit lifeboat crew, the Dingle unit of the Irish Coast Guard, the Civil Defence, Kerry County Council and local people, Flannery did his best to co-ordinate efforts to return the surviving animals to sea. It took much heaving, hauling, goading - and, in the event, the birth of a calf saved the day, when many of the whales gathered around the mother and followed her out.

The mammals left on the strand were exhausted and upset, and there were efforts to try to keep them alive by dousing them with buckets of sea water. In a bizarre turn of events, an Irish Coast Guard Sikorsky helicopter from Dublin is said to have contributed to their distress by landing several hundred metres away from them. It had left Dublin at 4.55 p.m. with a party from the Marine Mammal Rescue Service - a voluntary body led by Eugene Brennan, a civil servant - and arrived at 6.30 p.m., when much of the work was over.

At this stage, word was spreading that there was a risk of infection - possibly of tuberculosis. It caused alarm and it may have been one of the reasons for the quick burial of the mammals which had died - before a scientist from University College Cork (UCC) had arrived to carry out an examination and take samples.

UCC's zoology department has been undertaking an EU-funded project examining the level of contaminants in marine mammals. Samples from those dead bodies would have provided much valuable information, including reasons for the stranding, according to Dr Emer Rogan. She worked to develop a good relationship with most local authorities to ensure she is notified of strandings, live or dead, but in this case it didn't happen.

The infection scare is still in the public domain, to the extent that a report in this newspaper last week quoted the Marine Mammal Rescue Team as advising rescue workers to "contact their GPs" as a precautionary measure. The Southern Health Board responded, emphasising that there was "negligible risk" to human health from contact with the mammals. Dr Rogan echoes this, as does Dr Simon Berrow of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.

Brennan says his team has a duty to inform people of risks, and it regularly does so during training courses which his group runs in a voluntary capacity - with representatives of State agencies such as DĂșchas, the Department of the Marine, and the Naval Service, among others. He refers to a document published by the British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) on the risks. He says the warning was issued in consultation with the Fenit lifeboat's medical officer.

However, the MAFF document from its Marine Environmental Monitoring Office in Wales dated June 3rd, 1996, refers to one case of brucellosis picked up during laboratory work on seals and small cetaceans. The person showed flu-like symptoms and sinusitis but made a full recovery with antibiotics. "Precautions are routine in laboratories when working on dead animals, but the infection hazard posed by live animals is very minimal," Dr Rogan says.

The Department of the Marine has