Marine mammal response and rescue in the UK
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By Dan Jarvis, Director of Welfare and Conservation / Area Coordinator - Cornwall and Scilly
British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) is a frontline response charity with volunteer Medics trained in the health assessment, first aid and rescue techniques for marine mammals, turtles and sharks in distress around the coastline of the UK. A 24-hour hotline operated by staff and volunteers assess each incoming call and can receive photos and videos from callers to help with an initial assessment of the animal and its circumstances. Where required, Hotline Coordinators will then dispatch the Medics via a mass text callout system to request assistance. In 2021 the charity received over 3200 calls, the most in its entire history.
Presently, the charity has over 2500 trained volunteer Medics around the UK prepared to respond when a marine animal needs help. Around 35 courses for members of the public to join on to are held around the country annually and are open to anyone aged over 18 – note you do not need to be a diver, as the large majority of activity takes place on land rather than in the sea. More information on the training courses can be found on the BDMLR website.
Over 90% of the calls that come in to the hotline are regarding seals, usually young pups in the first few days or weeks of their life that may have variously been prematurely separated from their mother; injured by other seals, dogs or storms; developed infections; are exhausted and malnourished; or entangled in marine litter. Increasingly, the reasons why seals need help is due to human factors. The human population is growing and lots more people use the coast for a diversifying range of activities from swimming and paddleboarding to boating and drone flying. Disturbance is chronically high at many seal haul out sites around the country, with recent research by Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust demonstrating that some sites are affected by a disturbance incident on average every 14 minutes every day through the main summer holidays. This is not sustainable and the near-constant stress, waste of energy, risk of injury as they stampede to the sea to escape to safety and separation of pups is resulting in more casualties, and potentially mortalities.
It is not just the obvious human activity that creates problems. Human-induced climate change has resulted in the increasing frequency and severity of storms in autumn and winter, mainly affecting grey seals as this coincides with their pupping period. In 2017 Storm Brian and ex-Hurricane Ophelia struck south west England and Wales within a few days of each other at the height of the pupping season in October, resulting in over 70% of pups being lost overnight at several sites. BDMLR, the RSPCA and Cornish Seal Sanctuary were kept busy in the aftermath rescuing survivors in truly horrendous circumstances that continued through until February of the following year as storm after storm funnelled in by the jetstream repeatedly devastated the coast and was the worst rescue season on record for the region, with makeshift holding facilities for seals having to be created to cope with the sheer amount of weak and exhausted pups washing up by the day, if not the hour.
When dealing with live stranded cetaceans on the beach, the options available are for refloatation back into the sea, or euthanasia on welfare grounds. Veterinarians are always involved with decision making in these cases as it is critical to get it right. There are many good reasons why an individual might strand, such as infection, injury, malnourishment, old age or simply navigational error. Animals falling into the latter category are often otherwise healthy and are therefore the better candidates for refloatation, but simply shoving it back into the sea as quickly as possible without proper assessment, first aid or understanding can often result in failure.
Cetaceans live entirely without bearing their own bodyweight, so when stranded their organs, muscles and circulatory system are put under pressure. This can build up toxins and cause breathing difficulties that if not corrected in time can lead to damage and death. Stress is also a huge factor. Medics are trained to work carefully and calmly around the animal while providing assessment and first aid while making it more comfortable. If deemed suitable for refloatation then it is taken out and supported while it is allowed time to recover properly and give it the best chance of getting out first time. Sadly there have been many cases where well meaning people have tried to help but made matters worse, including refloating critically injured animals with no hope of survival, repeatedly refloating animals that are clearly weak and dying, and even on occasion pouring water into the blowhole (nostril) to fill the lungs, believing them to be like fish and not an air breathing mammal.
Marine mammals can be highly emotive animals for people to encounter and understandably people who find them in distress will want to help. The best thing to do first is ring the BDMLR hotline (01825 765546) for expert advice and what can and can’t be done, as well as enabling nearby Medics and equipment to be mobilised quickly if needed. A list of key advice for members of the public can be found on the BDMLR website (www.bdmlr.org.uk) for both seals and cetaceans. Education as always is key to being able to do the right thing.
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