Fears grow for 21 whales in Scottish loch
The pilot whales became stranded at low tide off Kyle of Durness in Sutherland, near the north-west tip of Scotland.
They were part of a pod of around 60 which got into difficulty yesterday.
The Royal Navy and Coastguard were helping with the rescue, which was expected to continue through the night.
It was launched after three whales, including a calf, beached on the shores of the loch.
The British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) said they were being given first aid.
It had been hoped they could be rescued using inflatable pontoons but the charity said the outlook for them was grim.
Stephen Marsh, of BDMLR, said it was "not looking good" for the remaining whales.
He said: "Two have died and around 20 are still in the water.
"The problem is several of the whales have stranded on their sides and on top of each other. We are trying to get people out there to get them upright so we can refloat them, but it does look pretty bad for those 30.
"With the water still dropping, things aren't looking good for this pod, but we're still hopeful that we'll be able to refloat those that will have been out of the water for the shortest time.
"Being an estuary, the tides don't conform to the usual rise and falls found on the coast.
"The animals themselves are not in a good condition and there are some very young whales in the beached group.
"Some of them have actually stranded upside down and are breathing in sand, so our priorities are to get these upright so that we can try to stabilise their condition."
Charlie Phillips, a Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) field officer, said: "It is difficult to tell how many have survived. Some appear to be alive, others are moribund and it looks as if some have died.
"We will be able to get a clearer picture when the water comes back."
The Scottish Government said it was on standby to help with the rescue effort.
Environment minister Richard Lochhead said: "It is greatly troubling to hear a large number of pilot whales are in distress off the north coast of Scotland. Reports that some animals are now stranded, and therefore may die, is extremely concerning.
"The Scottish Government stands ready to provide whatever assistance we can - both in these current difficult circumstances, and to further our future understanding of why these distressing events take place."
In May, some 60 pilot whales appeared in Loch Carnan, South, although they left the loch after one of the mammals died. The dead whale was later found on an island in the loch.A post-mortem examination suggested it had died of infection.
Rescuers later said a second whale was found dead in the same loch. It is thought to have died elsewhere and floated in on the tide.
Last October, other pilot whales almost got stranded in Loch Carnan, and less than a week later 33 whales, believed to be the same group, were found dead on a beach in Co Donegal in Ireland.
Pilot whales are known to prefer deep water but come inshore to feed on squid, their main food.