At least 21 dolphins died yesterday in the biggest mass stranding of marine animals in almost 30 years.
A pod of 15 striped dolphins were the first to become beached after they swam up the Percuil river near Falmouth in Cornwall and into Porth Creek. Their distress calls attracted scores more of the mammals to venture up the river and, by yesterday morning, up to 60 of the creatures had gathered.
A rescue operation took place throughout the day, combining the efforts of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), the coastguard and local wildlife trusts. The first lifeboat crew to arrive at Porth Creek described the scene as "carnage".
Seven of the mammals were saved by crews, with another two taken to deeper water on stretchers attached to boats to try to revive them. By the time the boats left the scene, a pod of up to 60 dolphins were following them back out to sea.
It is believed that the first dolphins ventured up the river because they were following fish that were feeding on a large algal bloom in the area. When the first rescue team arrived, they were met with the sight of shallow waters teaming with distressed and dying dolphins, as well as the bodies of the already beached. At least 20 of the sea creatures were discovered already dead, and one had to be put down by a vet immediately.
Dave Nicoll, the helmsman of the first lifeboat to arrive, said it was "a horrible scene of carnage with bodies everywhere". Mr Nicoll added: "We think the pod were attracted by the cries for help from those that were stuck in the creek."
Volunteers were still double-checking the area for more distressed animals, but it was believed that all surviving dolphins had already been removed by yesterday afternoon. All carcasses were logged and examined at Porth Creek by Cornwall Wildlife Trust volunteers before being taken away for a post-mortem examinations.
A spokeswoman for the RNLI said: "We are coming to the end of the rescue operation now, the last two are being taken out to sea. There are a lot of dolphins still in and around the river but they have managed to stop any going up towards the creek."
Marine experts said it was the biggest mass stranding of marine life for 27 years. Tony Woodley, national spokesman for BDMLR, said such an occurrence was "extremely rare". He explained: "We haven't seen a stranding anywhere near this scale since 1981 when pilot whales were beached on the east coast."
Mr Woodley identified the species as striped dolphins, which are not a coastal species. He said there were fears that they might get caught in the shallows again.
Striped dolphins are known for travelling in large groups, sometimes of 100 or more, and they can grow to 2.5 metres long (8.5ft) and weigh 160kg (352lb). That makes it easy for them to get stuck if they venture inland.
Mr Woodley said that they would be checking the area thoroughly. "We believe that all of the dolphins have been accounted for but our volunteers will be on site for a while checking the creeks and waterways. We do have concerns that this could happen again, there is still a pod in the area."
The Cornish dolphins were the second group of marine mammals to be stranded yesterday, after more than 100 melon-headed whales were discovered trapped in a bay north of Madagascar. About 30 have already died and experts were being flown in from around the world to help the rescue attempt.