Success as 100 pilot whales avoid death on shore

MARINE experts have claimed success in their frantic efforts to prevent a mass stranding of up to 100 pilot whales on a remote island shore.

It was the second time in a few months that animal safety teams had scrambled to Loch Carnan, South Uist, to prevent a group of the mammals from beaching.

About 20 of the whales have suffered severe head injuries in their ordeal, which is a repeat of a recent similar incident.

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In October last year a pod of the same type of long-finned pilot whales were in danger of becoming stranded in the same sea loch. They moved back out to sea but less than a week later 33 whales - believed to be the same group - were discovered dead on a beach in Co Donegal, Ireland.

The Scottish SPCA and British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) were involved in trying to save the whales and were ready to use inflatable pontoons to prevent what would have been Scotland's largest ever mass stranding.

Last night the whales had moved into deeper water and the immediate danger was over.

Scottish SPCA senior inspector Calum Watt said: "We were alerted to the possibility of a mass stranding yesterday evening and are now co-ordinating with BDMLR.

"When pilot whales come inshore there is a very strong chance some among the group are sick or injured.

"We believe around 20 of these whales have severe head injuries but at this stage we aren't sure of the cause. One possibility is these injuries were sustained during a previous attempt to strand themselves."

Rescuers said inflatable pontoons for refloating whales were on the way. He said pilot whales have extremely strong social bonds, which means healthy whales within the pod will follow sick and injured whales on to the shore.

"At this stage we remain hopeful they will not strand themselves but our concern is the injured whales will come onshore and be followed by the rest of the pod. Attempting to refloat so many whales would be a huge task and if they do become stranded we'll need to decide on the best course of action.

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"The largest number of whales we've tried to refloat before was seven, which was in 1993. Unfortunately all seven returned to the shore and died."

Mr Watt said it is extremely unusual that a second pod had arrived in the same area.

"There is no reason we know of why they would have come to the same location."

Dave Jarvis, spokesman for the BDMLR, said last night: "The whales appear to have moved into deeper water and split into a couple of smaller groups so the imminent danger of stranding has receded for the time being.

"However some of them have suffered some nasty injuries, possibly from previous strandings. Hopefully we can get guys out on boats to quietly approach the animals to check them out."He added: "It's very strange these animals have come back to the exact location. It appears to be a narrow inlet into the loch compared to other places they could have gone.

"So why they came back there is a mystery. There are theories but we don't really know."

Every year, thousands of whales, dolphins and porpoises are found stranded around the world. In Europe, this usually involves single animals and the majority are old, sick or wounded. But in other area, like New Zealand, many stranded animals come ashore in groups.

Usually when they strand it appears that either a lead animal has made a navigational mistake or one individual has become sick or wounded and led the rest of its pod on to the shore.

Recent research by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society linked naval sonar and whale strandings.