3 February 2017

Marine mammal emergency: Would you know what to do?

It’s human nature to want to help an animal in trouble and people will often go to great lengths - and risk - to do so. That's why RNLI lifesavers will sometimes step in or assist another rescue service to save animals’ lives at sea.

My name is Anna and I'm an editor for the RNLI. I'm also a diver and in my spare time, I volunteer as a marine mammal medic with British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) - a charity that responded to more than 870 marine mammal incidents last year.

Just as the RNLI looks out for people, BDMLR looks out for injured or sick seals and stranded whales, dolphins and porpoises around the UK.

The winter months can be hard on marine mammals, so your chances of coming across one while on a beach or coastal walk rise. With this in mind, I’d like to share some practical advice that will give you the courage and confidence to know what to do, as well as some of our lifeboat crew’s own close encounters!

Injured and sick seals

Seals are often spotted around our coastline but not every seal on land is in need of rescue. Most will have hauled out for a rest at low tide.

A seal rescued by Redcar RNLI is released back into the wildPhoto: RNLI/Dave Cocks
A seal rescued by Redcar RNLI is released back into the wild

'It was fantastic to have a happy ending'

‘We were training down on the beach when we spotted this seal pup drawing a crowd,' says Dave Cocks, Lifeboat Operations Manager at Redcar Lifeboat Station. 'The seal pup was a bit intimidated by the situation and they can be bad-tempered little so-and-sos. We helped create some space around it and kept watch while BDMLR Medic Chris Thompson came down to assess it and then move it to a safer place for release. It was fantastic to have a happy ending.

‘Our advice to people is always: If it isn’t injured then leave it alone, it’s probably just having a rest; if it’s injured or looks sick then get in touch with BDMLR [or one of the other organisations listed at the end of this article, depending on where it is].’

RNLI
crew members assist during a mass stranding of pilot whales in PittenweemPhoto: Gordon Lang
RNLI crew members assist during a mass stranding of pilot whales in Pittenweem

Stranded whales and dolphins

Whales, dolphins or porpoises (cetaceans) do not strand under normal circumstances and require immediate assistance.

Out of the water, they lose their equilibrium as well as the natural support water provides their diaphragm and vital organs.

A rescued dolphin is released back into the sea by Flint and Rhyl lifeboat crewsPhoto: RNLI/Paul Frost
A rescued dolphin is released back into the sea by Flint and Rhyl lifeboat crews

'Such a feeling of pride and happiness'

‘Knowing that RNLI crews are always there to help if needed is a great support to us’
Stephen Marsh
Operations Manager, BDMLR

When a dolphin became stranded on sandbanks in the River Dee, Flint lifeboat volunteers were called to help. They had to hoist the dolphin into the lifeboat and carry it down river to the sea where it was released with the help of Rhyl lifeboat crew and a BDMLR volunteer.

‘To see the dolphin going off and know we’d helped it gave such a feeling of pride and happiness,’ says Rhyl Crew Member Paul Frost.

‘The RNLI’s fast boats can take rescued animals away from potential stranding securely and safely,’ says Stephen Marsh, Operations Manager at BDMLR. ‘That’s where they really come into their own. Knowing that RNLI crews are always there to help if needed is a great support to us.’

‘There’s a wee baby one!’

I couldn’t end this article without one of our favourite marine mammal moments from last year when Dunbar lifeboat crew spotted a baby dolphin swimming alongside the lifeboat. Make sure your sound is on!

Want to help save our sea life?

Founded by divers, BDMLR is uniquely equipped with specialist whale pontoons, four 8.5m rigid inflatable boats (RIBs), ambulance trailers and rescue kits.

Each year, the charity trains over 400 on-call volunteer marine mammal medics, including individuals from the RSPCA, Scottish SPCA, HM Coastguard, the police and the fire and rescue service.

You don't have to be a diver to become a medic. If you're interested, find out more about the course and get in touch via their website at bdmlr.org.uk.

Our volunteers come to the aid of whales and other animal life in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.