Would you know what to do if you came across a beached whale, dolphin or porpoise? Whatever caused a marine mammal to end up where it's not supposed to be—on land—knowing what to do is crucial, much like any other emergency. Well-meaning actions, if wrong, can harm or even kill the animal. So, what you should do?
First, call for help straight away. A marine life charity (in the UK, the British Divers Marine Life Rescue—or BDMLR) or the coastguard can give advice over the phone while a rescue team is on the way. Give them as much information as you can, including:
- Exact location to help rescuers find you as quickly as possible
- Mobile number
- The animal’s length and distinguishing features to help identify the species
- Whether it is on sand, rocks or surf, and in the sunshine or shade
- The sea and weather conditions
- Injuries and breathing rate (count the number of breaths from its blowhole in one minute)
- Photos of the animal
- Whether anyone has tried to put it back into the sea (this is not recommended—see point 2—but be honest)
It might sound counter-intuitive but trying to put the animal back into the water yourself may do more harm than good and could be fatal. You might damage its fins or fluke (tail), cause unnecessary distress or prevent it getting vital treatment. BDMLR’s Dan Jarvis recalls people who’ve put the animal back into the water “10, 15, 20 times in a row before they even call for help and get advice. And, sadly, they’ve caused a huge amount of distress to that animal.” Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit’s Dr. Kevin Robinson adds that it’s then “usually a waiting game” until it re-strands further down the coast.
While whales and other cetaceans are mammals (not fish) and breathe air, out of water these cold-water animals quickly overheat even on a winter’s day. Their thick blubber—designed to insulate their internal organs from the cool water works against them on land. Project Jonah’s Daren Grover explains: “If they’re otherwise healthy, the number one risk to them dying when they strand is actually heatstroke: literally cooking from the inside.” For this reason, keep them cool by spraying or pouring water over them so their body is wet and shiny.
Keep the animal upright with its blowhole out of the water. Located on the top of their head and attached to their lungs, the blowhole is how cetaceans breathe – like our nostrils. Never cover or let water into the blowhole (for example, when dousing it to keep it cool) as this can be fatal.
It might sound surprising but whales and dolphins get sunburn too. Particularly on a hot day, protect the animal from the sun by covering it with wet sheets, clothing or seaweed.
Keep noise levels to a minimum and move calmly and quietly to minimise further distress to the animal. If you need to handle it, do so very carefully and keep clear of its powerful and dangerous tail.
When the experts arrive, follow their instructions. Sadly, survival rates for beached animals are low so prepare yourself for the upsetting possibility that a successful rescue might not be possible. That said, if the animal is otherwise healthy, your quick actions may have saved a life!
Article by Melissa Hobson (@mel_pud)