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Gaelic lullabies and ‘bodies everywhere’: How the UK’s deadliest whale stranding in decades unfolded

Rescuers tell Andy Gregory of the desperate effort to keep members of the pod alive – and the arduous post-mortems which could shine light on why these incidents may be on the rise

Sunday 23 July 2023 12:26 BST
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A group of 55 pilot whales – which grow up to seven metres long – became stranded on the Isle of Lewis
A group of 55 pilot whales – which grow up to seven metres long – became stranded on the Isle of Lewis (Mairi Robertson Carrey/BDMLR via AP)

It was 8.13am on the morning of her 12th wedding anniversary when Màiri Robertson Carrey was woken by the emergency alert.

Two hours further up the coastline, a pod of pilot whales had run aground and was now trapped on a remote beach on the Isle of Lewis – with a desperate race against time underway to save the lives of as many as possible.

But despite completing her extensive training as a volunteer marine medic only last September, there was little which could have prepared Ms Carrey for the scenes awaiting her on the rugged golden-white sands of Traigh Mhòr, which last weekend played host to the UK’s deadliest mass stranding in decades.

Pod of 55 whales found dead after mass stranding in Scotland

No fewer than 55 pilot whales lay strewn across the beach – many of them already dead – when they were discovered on Sunday morning by a fellow volunteer with British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), who, like Ms Carrey, had only completed her training 10 months ago.

The discovery – on an outer Hebridean island accessible only by ferry or plane – sent instant shockwaves through the UK’s network of cetacean experts, who rallied from across the country to join a mammoth response still in force one week on as scientists conduct post-mortems.

Early investigations suggest one of the whales encountered difficulty giving birth and – given the strong social and emotional bonds between pilot whales – was fatally followed onto the beach by the others, according to BDMLR director of welfare and conservation Dan Jarvis.

Given that just 15 whales were still alive by the time they were discovered, they are believed to have washed ashore in the middle of the night – one of several unfortunate factors which compounded the difficulties faced by rescuers.

With pilot whales weighing up to two tonnes and growing to seven metres in length, it’s “just not physically possible” to move them closer to the water, “so you’re very much at the mercy of time and tide”, said Mr Jarvis, who was coordinating the network from Cornwall last Sunday.

Pod of 55 whales found dead after mass stranding in Scotland

“If you’re lucky,” he said, “you know exactly how long they’ve been stranded for, and if you’re even luckier, they strand on an incoming tide which gives you an opportunity to refloat them. But with this case it was completely the reverse.

“We didn’t see them strand, they’d possibly been there for hours already, and they were found on high tide, so there was really not any opportunity to do anything for the ones that were high and dry by the time first responders got there.”

Moreover, Traigh Mhòr is in a “dead zone” for phone signal and the rescuers’ high-frequency radios were also struggling – meaning any communication had to be done at least a mile-and-a-half from the beach.

But by the time Ms Carrey and her husband had arrived from their home in Scarista, at the opposite end of the Isle of Harris, some 25 coast guard staff, fire and rescue officials and BDMLR medics were already at the scene, along with a few members of the public.

They were spread out across the beach in kind of an arc ... You were nose-to-tail with a number of others that weren’t alive”

In a testament to their training, the plan drawn up by her fellow volunteer who was first on the scene remained in place long into the afternoon, and attempts had already been made to refloat two whales who were “still quite active” and were beached closer to the water, while other survivors were triaged.

While one sole survivor managed to swim away and has not been spotted since, the other whale – thought to be a calf, drawn to its mother on the beach – continued to wash back up on the beach despite multiple attempts to refloat it, with the sea state eventually deemed unsafe for the rescuers to continue.

But with high tide not set to return until 7pm, rescuers faced a tense situation – and Ms Carrey and her husband were met by the sight of whales strewn across the beach, with those who remained alive identifiable by the soaked towels and blankets in which they were covered to keep them wet.

“When I arrived I was just advised ‘choose one’ because we didn’t have enough medics to be one-to-one,” said Ms Carrey, who ended up looking after three different whales.

“They were spread out across the beach in kind of an arc. Some of them were very, very close together,” she told The Independent, adding that for every whale she was tending, “you were nose-to-tail with a number of others that weren’t alive”.

The living whales were covered in blankets to keep them wet (Mairi Robertson Carrey/via REUTERS)

Initially choosing the two “that looked really quiet”, Ms Carrey “noticed that the longer I spent with the whale I’d chosen, the more lively it became and its breathing became more regular”.

The whales were “blowing quite hard through their blowholes”, with their entire bodies visibly moving and shuddering, and the two livelier whales lashing their tail – known as flukes – and “struggling a bit on the sand”.

Ms Carrey, who works full-time at the BumbleBee Conservation Trust and is also working on the Lottery-funded Species on the Edge programme, also recalled hearing either a “vibration through the ground” or a “noise vibrating from one of the whales” she was with, which she “kept feeling through the sand”.

“I was talking to them and saying ‘everything’s going to be fine’, and after a few hours kind of ran out of words, and I was humming and singing,” she said, recalling singing a Gaelic lullaby to one of the whales.

“My mum’s from Harris,” she explained. “All kinds of things come through your mind in that situation, I suppose. Just things I thought might be soothing or comforting – or maybe it was me that was being soothed or comforted, I’m not sure.”

With the sea receding, channels were dug out to harness rainy streams coming off the dunes directly to the whales. Sandbanks were also built up against the whales’ flanks and under their flippers to keep them upright and help them breathe.

But despite all their best efforts, at 3pm it was decided by a veterinarian that the whales should be euthanised to save them from further suffering, in the face of a punishing and near-impossible wait for high tide to return at 7pm.

Channels of water were dug by the coast guard and sandbanks built to keep the whales upright (Mairi Robertson-Carrey/BDMLR via AP)

“You’ve got bodies everywhere, you’ve got a few survivors – but you’ve only got a limited amount of resources to do anything,” said Mr Jarvis. “These animals, when they’re out of water, do start to crush themselves under their own weight, as they live entirely in the marine environment.”

As their skeleton loses its ability to support their bodies, “that crushing effect over time will start to cut off circulation and affect the function of organs and muscles and tissues, and will start to build up toxins which will effectively poison the animal and kill it”.

“Generally speaking,” he added, “it’s around six hours that they’re viable for, out of the water.”

Ms Carrey described the decision as a “heartbreaking” moment – as those not involved in the euthanasia and early post-mortem procedures were told to leave the beach. Some volunteers had only just arrived on ferries from Ullapool and Skye, while a vet who flew from Oxford on a private plane had just reached Dundee and was turned around.

“It hit people really hard. People left in tears and really heartbroken,” said Ms Carrey. “I went to say goodbye to the three [whales] I’d been supporting and that was very emotional. I think after that, when I realised what was going to happen, I just mentally and emotionally shut down and got through it, I guess.”

Màiri Robertson Carrey said she had since been reflecting upon the strength of the connections between both the animals and the humans involved (Màiri Robertson Carrey)

That process was still ongoing a week later, with an area set out at a local landfill site for the whales to be examined as experts with the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme and elsewhere sought to glean vital information about the tragedy, and why events like it and others may have happened.

With a single post-mortem taking hours, the team of just a handful of experts – including some from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) – have been warned they faced “a race against the clock” to inspect as many of the whales as possible before their bodies are too decomposed.

It is hoped that bacteriology, toxicology and virology samples will reveal diseases the whales may be suffering from or any ingestion of harmful human pollutants – potentially shining a light on the cause of the stranding, and the threats whales face in oceans across the world, experts said.

Full post-mortems on even just a few of the whales “will be very valuable in indicating whether the cause of the stranding was human-related in any way”, said Professor Peter Evans, director of the Sea Watch Foundation.

With whale pods often matriarchal, Prof Evans suggested the stranding may have been caused by the mature female having difficulty giving birth and the others following it ashore due to their strong social bonds – a situation which caused a mass stranding of 21 whales on Skye in 2015.

A less likely possibility is that the tragedy was caused by a “navigational error”, causing the pod difficulties in unfamiliar, shallow water which hampered their sonar capabilities, he told The Independent.

Or post-mortems may show evidence of haemorrhaging or bubbles in their tissue, which could reveal a human cause – such as seismic surveys for the fossil fuel industry, the naval military use of sonar, or the use of explosives to clear Second World War-era mines, Prof Evans said.

It is a question of no small significance, given that Sunday’s tragedy by all accounts represents the deadliest mass stranding seen on British shores for decades – outstripping a 2011 stranding at the Kyle of Durness, blamed on underwater Navy explosions, in which 19 of 70 beached whales were saved.

And according to Rob Deaville, who leads the ZSL team helping conduct post-mortems, “reports of whale strandings are currently on the rise in the UK, and we’re still trying to understand why”.

Mr Jarvis also reports a slight uptick in mass pilot whale strandings which began around 15 years ago, which he suggested could potentially be a result of climate change pushing cetaceans into unfamiliar habitats closer to shore, or their population increasing.

But Prof Evans disagreed, pointing to strandings involving up to 150 whales spanning back centuries, and said the increase across all cetacean species over the past 30 years – comprising some 17,000 incidents – “is probably as much to do with better reporting than anything else”.

Regardless of its place in history, the stranding on Lewis is one which will live long in the memories of those on the beach at Traigh Mhòr.

“We’re doing a lot of support with our team who were involved because it is quite a traumatic experience,” said Mr Jarvis, calling this work “a really important part of the aftermath”.

“When you get there, the adrenaline kicks in and you’ve got a job to do.” But afterwards, “when you come down again and you fully absorb the impact ... the sight, the sound, everything really can hit you”, he said.

Despite initially having felt “a bit numb” about the tragedy, Ms Carrey said she had been reflecting in recent days upon the strength of the connections between both the animals and the humans involved.

“Seeing the whales ... and how closely they were lying together on the shore, it did make you really think about those animal bonds,” she said.

“I think that came through really strongly on Sunday, how important all the bonds are – for the whales, but for humans with nature as well, and with each other.”

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