Stranded Whale In River Clyde Report

Stranded Whale In River Clyde ReportNow granted it’s hardly the type of headline you would be expecting to see however for the 72 hours from Monday the 21st September that’s exactly what we had. It’s actually not that uncommon to find cetaceans in the Clyde. In June 2008 we were visited by a Pelagic species of Dolphin known as a Rissos Dolphin which spent a few days swimming around before making its way back out to sea.

Now granted it’s hardly the type of headline you would be expecting to see however for the 72 hours from Monday the 21st September that’s exactly what we had. It’s actually not that uncommon to find cetaceans in the Clyde. In June 2008 we were visited by a Pelagic species of Dolphin known as a Rissos Dolphin which spent a few days swimming around before making its way back out to sea.

At 1700hrs on Monday night, having finished my working day (or so I thought!) I received a phone call from British Divers Marine Life Rescue HQ (BDMLR) based in Sussex to inform me or a reported sighting of a possible dolphin in the Clyde adjacent to Glasgow City Centre. As well as being a Wildlife Crime Officer I am also a Marine Mammal Medic so grabbing my call out kit I made the twenty minute drive into the City Centre.

On arrival a short time later I was met by another Glasgow based volunteer medic, Elaine and within minutes we spotted the animal moving back and forth in an area of about 200m square, blowing well and arching on the surface. It was quickly apparent that this was a large mammal and its dorsal fin was set well back. Initial thoughts led us to believe it was actually a Northern Bottle Nose Whale and our excitement at actually witnessing such a magnificent whale was sorely tempered by the fact that it should be no where near here.

Stranded Whale In River Clyde1Low tide was quickly established as 2100hrs and we settled in for a long night of observations until the danger time passed. It continued to surface, much to the delight of the gathering crowd, but it seemed hell bent on staying in an area which we knew was soon to become the shallowest part of the river.

Things were not looking good.

At 2105 hrs, just five minutes after low tide point, the worst happened. The whale, having been restricted to a channel some 2 meters deep, tried to make a turn in the water next to a bridge support and found itself out of the water.

Now it’s fair to say that our hearts sank, there is no way to describe the feeling as we made our way towards its position along the quay wall watching this magnificent animal thrashing and arching in the water, it’s blow hole seeming to work overtime. It really was a distressing site for Elaine and I as medics and was obviously distressing for the whale.

We contacted BDMLR HQ immediately to mobilise additional resources and medics but within 6 or 7 minutes, the whale, with much tail slapping, managed to free itself and get back into the water. Our elation was short lived when two minutes later it almost did exactly the same thing again but perhaps sensing the danger, it disappeared from view and wasn’t seen again that evening.

Our decision was to stand down until the next low tide so, having updated HQ, two weary medics made their way home for the night.

Stranded Whale In River Clyde2Tuesday 22nd September

0700hrs saw Elaine and I back at the Clyde and within minutes our whale popped up to say hello. HQ were contacted and a full blown rescue plan was put into place in anticipation of the next low tide at 0920. When it stranded the previous night we were able to estimate its length at between 4 and 5 meters long so it was clear that to provide any control over the animal should we attempt a refloat we would need two sets of pontoons. Our Medic colleague Allan from Edinburgh attended with the necessary kit as well as a team from Cumbria. Cameron McPherson BDMLR vet also attended and assistance was sought from Strathclyde Police Marine Unit who provided sterling assistance with their rib all throughout the operation in conjunction with the crew of the St Mungo barge.

Using the barge and rib we were able to get the entire team onto the water in order that we could get a good view of the whale which was particular important for our vets. It was clear that the animal wasn’t in good shape but it had moved further down river (in the right direction) which was a positive.

Low tide came and went without incident but alas the whale had decided to visit the shallow part of the Clyde again and seemed content to swim around to the delight of its growing number of cheering fans along the quay wall.

It seemed determined to play a game of cat and mouse with the tide. Meanwhile we monitored its movements and made preparations and plans for every conceivable eventuality.

As the second low tide approached there had been no sightings and our spirits rose as the tide did the opposite at the thought that perhaps it had decided to go home. By the time we stood down at 0030hrs we were hopeful that we wouldn’t see it again. Plans were made for myself and Elaine to cover either side of the mornings low tide “just in case”.

Stranded Whale In River Clyde 4Wednesday 23rd September

So there I was, coffee in hand, standing on the quay wall in what had become known as the “danger area” when, yup, you guessed it, with a rather loud blow up it surfaced.

I’m sure I visibly slumped!

By now though we were well versed in our plan of action so everything fell into place very quickly. The team re assembled, the equipment was made ready of the council pontoon and the Police Marine Unit and St Mungo barge swung into action.

Myself, Medic Elaine and vets Cameron and Joe headed out on the Police Rib and, with the help of onlookers, found the whale about three miles down river in deeper water. Much to our delight it seemed to be heading in the right direction and we followed it most of the morning as it headed towards the Clyde Estuary where it leads ultimately to the sea. It’s condition seemed to have deteriorated even in the space of twenty four hours so any elation we may have had was wiped out knowing that it was extremely unlikely that it would survive, indeed our spirits were exceptionally low at the thought of not being able to ease its suffering.

We returned to our base on the river side at 1445 and updated HQ with the news that it was last seen about 8 miles down river and at least heading the right way. Previous disappointment left us with no viable option but to stay until the evening low tide had passed so we settled down as best we could in the shelter of the St Mungo barge and played the waiting game.

Just prior to the six o’clock news I was asked to do another follow up interview so there we were set up on the quay wall ready for broadcast.

“So when did you last see the whale” asks the presenter

“It was last seen about 1440 hrs today heading in the right direction” says I

“Oh” says she, “It’s just popped up behind you”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! It’s timing could not have been better.

Yep, sure enough, it had turned around and travelled all the way back up the Clyde.

Dismay in the team all around we watched it as it made its way as far as it could possibly travel up the river where the weir blocked its way. By this time, to complicate matters further, we had learned that the sand banks left at low tide would be too dangerous for us to stand on and with rescue and re float no longer an option owing to the massive deterioration in the whale, easing its suffering was going to be difficult to carry out safely as well.

The team were obviously dejected.

True to form though the whale disappeared just prior to low tide and as I write this (Friday 25th September) there have been no further sightings.

You don’t have to be a diver if you are at all interested in becoming a Marine Mammal Medic. Have a look here at courses available and the work of British Divers Marine Life Rescue in the UK.