Pod of 55 whales dies after mass stranding in Scotland

Pilot whales stranding in Scotland

An entire pod of 55 pilot whales has died after a mass stranding on a beach in Scotland’s Western Isles.

The pod washed ashore at North Tolsta on the Isle of Lewis on Sunday morning (16 July 2023). It is one of the largest mass strandings in UK waters on record.

On Sunday, the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) released an update stating one of the dead whales displayed evidence of a placenta – highlighting “issues with birthing”. This means it is possible that the pod beached after the whale got into difficulty giving birth. This can happen due to the species’ strong social bonds, which cause them to travel together when one whale gets into difficulty.

Whale strandings in the UK are rare but not unheard of. In 2020, a rare True’s beaked whale was found at Kearvaig Bay in Sutherland, after being stranded during a storm.

Pilot whales are small, open-sea mammals and are technically members of the dolphin family, but are treated as whales under marine protection laws.

At first, only 15 of the whales were alive. Divers from the marine charity BDMLR attempted to refloat one of the whales, but it became re-stranded shortly afterwards further down the beach. Three other whales later died, leaving 12 still alive, including four calves.

After attempts to issue first aid to the remaining whales, the decision was taken to euthanise them on welfare grounds.

Rescuers reportedly struggled with the remote location, with medics often having to drive up to five miles to get phone service to communicate.

A statement said: “At about 15:30, the local vet along with the Coastguard, Fire and Rescue, and a forensics vet came to the conclusion that the shallow beach and rough wave conditions made it too unsafe to refloat the remaining animals.

“Considering how long the pilot whales had been out of the water in addition to the poor conditions, it was decided that they should be euthanised on welfare grounds.”

Members of the Lewis community, Stornoway Coastguard, Stornoway and Shawbost Fire and Rescue, the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS), the Scottish SPCA, and Civil Air Support were all involved in the rescue effort. Marine experts and vets were flown in to help.

SMASS is conducting a post-mortem examination to establish the cause of the stranding.

Angus MacNeil, MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, called on Marine Scotland to “urgently” assess sonar work taking place in the seas around Lewis.

A spokesperson for the SMASS told the National newspaper it would be “premature to speculate” on the cause. “Many things can lead to whales and dolphins coming ashore, with disease, disorientation in complex inshore environments, and underwater noise being examples of factors that could lead to such an event,” the spokesperson says.

Police and the Western Isles Council – Comhairle nan Eilean Siar — have urged people to avoid the beach as a clean-up operation is now underway.

Whales and dolphins are at significant and increasing risk of harm from the impact of human disturbance. In May, England launched its first national Marine and Coastal Wildlife Code, designed to help people visit the coast responsibly. The code gives guidance on how to report injured, distressed or dead animals, including through the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP).

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