Standing in waist deep freezing cold sea water with a life size two-tonne pilot whale was a strange way to spend last Sunday in Ullapool, but there was a valid reason. I was training to become a Marine Mammal Medic with the BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue), a UK based international organisation dedicated to the rescue of marine animals. The BDMLR were particularly keen to have a ranger from St Kilda on the course following an incident two years earlier that saw the tragic death of two Sowerby's beaked whales during a live stranding event in Village Bay. I too was also determined to get some training and after a failed attempt last year I was pleased that a trip to the mainland for work coincided with the timing of this course.
The morning was based in the classroom as we had plenty of theory to learn including the types of cetacean and seals we might encounter in the UK; information about anatomy, physiology, behaviour and social structures and the reasons why these factors may cause marine creatures to strand; how to assess an animals condition and provide first aid, different rescue techniques and lastly how to stay safe throughout any interactions. This was emphasised as marine mammals carry diseases which can transfer to humans so an understanding of how to protect yourself is vital. One bite from a seal for example could result in a severe infection leading to cellulitis, septic arthritis and limb threatening gangrene!
In the afternoon we headed to the waters edge to put our new found knowledge and skills to the test. The bulk of the BDMLR's work in the UK involves rescuing seals and we were told how they can be particularly tricky and temperamental to treat when stressed. We were taught how to handle and lift an injured or stranded individual using a life sized model albeit one without sharp pointy teeth and an obvious lack of attitude!
Photo: Steven Gourlay
We then attempted to refloat a two tonne life-sized model of a pilot whale. For this rescue we used specialist mats and pontoons filled with air to provide a structure which could lift the whale from the sea floor, support its bulk on the sea surface and be moved about with very little human effort. These last two points are important as in a real stranding situation the whale could remain on the pontoon for many hours as Medics never force the animal to head out to sea but instead allow the animal to chose when it is ready for release.
Photo: Noel Hawkins
Our next patient was a life sized water filled model of a common dolphin. Using this we were taught how to assess the condition of an animal, provide first aid and learn lifting techniques using a tarp. It was noticeably more difficult to manoeuvre the dolphin in this way but it gave us valuable insight that the same outcome - the successful refloat of a stranded animal - could be achieved using very basic equipment. Let's face it, I'm never going to carry a set of inflatable pontoons in the car but I could easily pop a tarp in the boot and hope I never have to use it.
Photo: Noel Hawkins
The course was interesting and well worth doing, I'd encourage anyone to attend but particularly folk that live in the more remote coastal regions of the UK. It's comforting to now think that I will head out to St Kilda armed with knowledge that would allow me to organise a rescue attempt should any whales, dolphins or seals get into difficulty on our shoreline.