Portmahomack whale rescued for second time
• RAF bombing practise feared to have caused initial whale beachings
The pilot whale was one of three which had originally beached at Portmahomack in Easter Ross on Tuesday night, with two being refloated.
The third sadly died.
However, one returned further up the coast at Dornoch several hours later, but again was successfully returned to the Outer Moray Firth.
During the rescue operation, bosses behind the biggest military exercise in Europe had agreed to halt operations near to the location so as not to distress them.
There had been suggestions a bombing exercise may have been to blame for the original beaching of the pilot whales.
One tragically died, but 20 dedicated rescuers managed to successfully return two of the animals to the open sea after a major operation on Wednesday.
Stephen Marsh, of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, said: “They had been stranded originally for about 12 hours and normally after that time they cannot survive.
“To get two of the whales back in the water was fantastic. However, one returned later at Dornoch on Wednesday, at about 6.30pm.
“Because they had been stranded for quite some time they would have become cramped and tired. It may be that this whale was not able to fight the tide, which was strong and coming in, and came back in.
“These animals are used to deep water. They are not aware of the rise and fall of tides with sandbanks, which are in this area.
“Thankfully we were able to refloat this whale and get her back to sea by 10.30pm.”
Neither of the rescued whales had been spotted near the coast throughout Thursday.
Mr Marsh added: “We hope that is them back to open sea for good and we won’t be seeing them again.”
Meanwhile, he praised military chiefs behind Exercise Joint Warrior for halting RAF jets from practising bombing in the Easter Ross area.
Rescuers claimed the exercises could be heard from nearby RAF Tain bombing range and there was a suggestion this may have caused the beaching in the first place.
Mr Marsh said: “We have a good working relationship with the military when it comes to exercises.
“We understand it was just the RAF in the area at the time. There were no submarines, which could pose a problem with sonar equipment being used by those trying to find them.”
A Joint Warrior Exercise spokesman confirmed they had been asked by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue to move their bombing practice elsewhere and would not return to the area for their final day on Thursday.
He said: “The RAF were conducting an exercise in the area as part of Exercise Joint Warrior and were contacted by BDMLR, who informed them about the whales.
“They agreed to move the exercise activity elsewhere for the time being just as a precaution.
“The RAF also agreed to carry out a visual inspection of the area before conducting exercises to see if there is any marine mammal activity in the area. If there is, they won’t exercise in that area.”
Portmahomack housewife Jackie More, 42, first spotted the whales while walking her dog at 8.30am on Wednesday and nearby resident Ann Mackay, 56, said she had never seen whales beached in the area before.
The pair immediately called the coastguard for help and set about digging the disorientated out of the sand and threw buckets of water over them.
A team of Scottish SPCA, coastguard and BDMLR members quickly arrived, along with another ten local volunteers and the group managed to get the first whale out to sea without much difficulty while bombs exploded in the background at a nearby RAF Tain bombing range.
But they spent another three hours trying to get the weaker second whale back out to sea and managed to do so minutes before it was about to be put down.
The rescue team paid tribute to Jackie and Ann and said without them the two whales would be dead. The third whale, however, did die.
BDMLR member Alastair Jack said: “The public probably saved its life getting it upright. It was difficult to refloat it with the surf and the amount of people we had was not enough for the size of the animal.
“We tried the inflatable pontoon but the surf was too strong, so we decided to manhandle it back into the water. We restored its equilibrium by rocking it from side-to-side. It was really its last chance when we released it for it to stay upright and swim away.”
Scottish SPCA senior inspector Andy Brown said of the second whale: “We were conscious that it was stranded for quite a while and it was make-or-break time.”
About 13,000 military personnel from nine different countries had been taking part in Exercise Joint Warrior which included 49 ships from the UK, Canada, the Netherlands and Germany and about 40 military aircraft. The war games came to an end on Thursday.