Turning the tide on a natural tragedy

WHALE strandings are on the rise and now wildlife campaigners are calling for new procedures to ensure that live beachings are dealt with appropriately – and without risk to humans.

On Monday, 13 pilot whales were beached on the Donegal coast, where they died in spite of strenuous efforts by volunteers. Eight whales were successfully dragged back to sea, only to return later with the high tide.

It was the latest in what has been a steady increase in whale strandings, with 182 reported in 2012, rising to 224 in 2013, according to conservation body the Irish Whales and Dolphins Group (IWDG).

There were as few as 56 reported beachings in 2000, rising to 139 in 2009. In the five years that followed, the figure jumped by 61% to 224 last year.

Some of the increase may be partly attributed to greater public awareness and improved recording methods, but the true reasons for the increase are unknown.

‘Last year was the highest number of strandings,’ said Mick O’Connell, the stranding co-ordinator of the IWDG. ‘Nobody knows why,’ he told the Irish Mail on Sunday this week.

Captain Nic Slocum of Whalewatch in West Cork says simply: ‘It’s a little bit of everything,’ while the IWDG’s Nick Masset mentioned ‘acoustic trauma’, ‘disease’ and increased reporting as possible explanations.

Mike Sheeran, of the Blasket Island Eco Marine Adventure Tour in Dingle, expressed his concern that ‘the whale strandings might be connected to seismic surveys done in the West of Ireland’ and ‘the damage of sonar work on pilot whales’.

Mr O’Connell said the beachings in Donegal on Monday showed that ‘a procedure, including when and how to euthanise, needs to be developed and agreed so all authorities, agencies and the public know what should happen’.

While the strandings in Falcarragh indicated ‘remarkable enthusiasm of people to help’, there also ‘appeared to be no experienced person in charge of the situation’. ‘Terrified 6m whales are potentially dangerous animals so care is needed that nobody gets hurt, especially when good intentions outweigh experience,’ he said.

The IWDG believes that the National Parks and Wildlife Service should take the lead as it holds responsibility for the protection of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

‘The relevant agency needs to have in place a coastal network of personnel trained in the latest best practice guidelines for dealing with live strandings, backed up with appropriate authority to act as beachmaster,’ he said.


Mathilde Frot, 2014, The Irish Mail on Sunday