Hebrides Wildlife Officer attends fin whale stranding

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Hebrides Wildlife Officer attends fin whale stranding

ORCA's Hebrides Wildlife Officer, Ashleigh, came to assist in the live stranding of a fin whale in Wales.

Ashleigh, who is currently based in North Wales, attended a stranded whale on 13th June 2020 in the Dee Estuary and here is the full account of what happened to this whale:

I was about to start a day working from home for ORCA when I received a call from British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) who aid in the rescue and rehabilitation of stranded marine mammals across the UK. They advised fisherman had reported a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) had stranded in the Dee Estuary and was alive, as a qualified Marine Mammal Medic…I shot into action! My car was full of the necessary equipment, mask, gloves, lubricant (yes, you heard it right! It’s used to stop the eyes of whales, dolphins and porpoises drying out), stranding protocol and forms. I arrived at the scene in Greenfield docks, Wales, and there was no sign of the whale, so I began walking across the wetland and fell in a muddy bog! I went back to where I started and saw a little fishing boat picking up a well-kitted up Marine Mammal Medic and realised I was in the right place all along! A boat arrived and myself, and the vet floundered in the small RIB, the fisherman was very mindful of the dangerous sandbanks and tides of the area and made sure we were both tucked nicely in the boat. We darted towards a big lump in the distance and a silhouette of a whale was soon obvious with is flat rostrum and dorsal fin.

Ashleigh with Hennry the fin whale.

“His name is Henry! After the chap that found him.” we were told by the BDMLR team. At the time of our arrival Henry was half submerged and keeping him wet was not a problem using the oncoming tide, the blow rate was around 1 – 3 Beats Per Minute (bpm) which is slightly above their normal range of 1 bpm. Once the tide had him fully submerged he was able to lift his head out of the water slowing the bpm down to 1, at this point we noticed that with every exhale he was trying to roll himself afloat so we all stood one side and assisted him by gently rolling him on every exhale. It took some time as he was 13.5 m and ca. 14 tonnes, but eventually he was floating. He gracefully swam passed us, until at a safe distance and began tail slapping! We all quickly got to safety in the boats and watched him swim out, it was great seeing him with lots of energy after being freed and had me feeling very hopeful! The fishermen were instrumental in our efforts, as without them we would not have been able to get out to Henry.

A closer look at Henry (CREDIT: BDMLR).

The next day I did a little research to find out a little more about Henry. At 13.5 m he was probably recently independent and separated from his mother. Fin whales are normally fully weaned at 6-7 months old and reach 11-12 m, when fully grown (25-30 years) they can reach 18.5 - 20 metres weighing up to a colossal 50.5 tonnes! They are the second largest animal in the world today, second only to the blue whale and can live up to 94 years. The European population are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN and fin whales are pretty fast, nicknamed the greyhound of the sea with fast bursts reaching 29mph!
By the time I had finished my reading and catching up on some ORCA work, I had another call, he had re-stranded again. This was sad news but expected as often there is a reason they strand in the first place, and they can often re-strand. He was still alive, so we wanted to make him as comfortable as possible and give him every chance of survival. When we were able to get to him he was looking very uncomfortable, his breathing was quite erratic and he was gargling with this blowhole, this may be because he was lying on one side of his body with his own weight bearing down on him. I stuck with him and wanted to comfort him, I stayed in his sight so he had one person he could connect with in this dazed terrestrial world. It has been said that this does help juvenile cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) as they still have the bond open that has recently ended with their mother. I stayed with him, soothing him, laughing with him, explaining what was going on and how many people were trying to help him. Maybe on some level this brough him comfort and he could understand me. We left Henry as the tide was coming in to ensure we were all safe and monitored his movements until night-time prevailed. The RNLI, Coastguard, North Wales Police and once again, the fishermen all contributed to our efforts and we would not have been able to do what we did without them.

Knowing he was alive and struggling I couldn’t sleep so as soon as I thought the tide would be low enough I headed to Greenfield dock to see if he was still there. After a tense search I could see a lump in the distance with lots of birds circling over so thought this could possibly be Henry. I could hear a buzzing sound above and noticed a guy was taking his drone out for a jaunt! How lucky! I asked if he could get close to that lump in the distance and it took a while till we were both looking at the same thing. Dylan advised he had a license and the location of Henry was within the distance regulations for the recreational use of drones. We saw the clear image of a fin whale, Henry. I asked him to hover at a safe distance to see if there was any movement, alas I couldn’t see any movement or the blow holes opening, no sign of life. A Marine Mammal Medic went out with the fisherman after and they made the same heart-breaking observation.

This was such a saddening experience, but I know that everyone involved had Henry’s well-being at the forefront of their mind and seeing a fin whale that close will likely never happen again, hopefully. I was amazed at how his skin felt, how grooved the rorquals were, how neatly his baleen plates sat in his jaw and how much was going on behind that eye. He was a fighter and a true ocean giant.

It has been confirmed that a post-mortem examination will take place to find out what happened to Henry the fin whale. This will be conducted by Natural Resources Wales and Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme (CSIP). Thank you to ORCA as on my working day I was cleared to go and help Henry, which I will be ever grateful for.

** UPDATE ** CSIP completed an post-mortem on 15th June 2020. Henry measured 12.65m and was judged to be in moderate-poor nutritional condition, with no evidence of recent feeding. Relatively minor parasitic infestations were noted in the kidneys and also within the stomachs and intestinal tract and in the blubber. No evidence of marine debris/plastic ingestion was noted in the stomachs. The findings from the gross examination are currently considered to be consistent with live stranding of a nutritionally compromised and out of habitat individual. Further tests are pending and follow up results will be posted if anything of note arises.”