Why can’t beached whales just go back in the sea? Your stranding questions answered 

Why can’t beached whales just go back in the sea? Your stranding questions answered 

It looks such a simple task. When a whale washes up on the shore, why can’t it just be moved straight back into the sea? 
A pod of pilot whales lie stranded on a beach in Ireland

Strandings happen in the UK about 20-50 times a year, involving whales, dolphins and porpoises – types of aquatic mammals collectively known as cetaceans.  

Because it’s relatively unusual, it can draw a crowd of concerned people who naturally want it to survive and might wonder how decisions are taken. 

Rescue is always the first aim but it’s not straightforward to safely return to the water a frightened creature that’s out of its element and – in the biggest cases – can weigh around 50 tonnes.  

With help from HM Coastguard and cetacean experts from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) charity, here are some answers about what happens next and why.


I’ve found a whale washed up on the beach. How can I help? 

The best way is to report any sightings of stranded cetaceans as soon as you can, even if you think they might be dead. Dial 999 and ask for the Coastguard, give details, then keep clear and wait for help. Gathering round the animal will intensify their distress, and it is possible for disease to be passed to humans. You can also call the BDMLR on 01825 765546. 


When can they be rescued? 

For smaller cetaceans, such as dolphins, this can be done with care and by trained operatives, often using special equipment. As the sizes go up, however, it becomes a much bigger challenge that, sadly, might not be practical or safe.  


Can’t people just push them back into the sea? 

Well-intentioned rescue efforts by the public could cause them painful injuries and, with their huge weight and potential to thrash, be dangerous to those involved. Get it wrong and even a relatively small one-tonne animal would be the equivalent of a hatchback car rolling onto you. Don’t add to the risk. 


Couldn’t we move them with a net instead? 

Dolphins and porpoises are smaller, so can sometimes be helped by experts back into the sea. But even the lightest of whales are too big for most quickly obtainable netting, and digging underneath to slide straps is extremely difficult and dangerous. 

As well as the practical difficulties, some species will typically simply come back ashore or very quickly die at sea. Their stranding might be linked to disease too, so reintroducing them back to the wild could pass on the illness and lead to even more beachings later. 


Why don't HM Coastguard get involved to move them? 

Once alerted via a 999 call, HM Coastguard will coordinate the early stages of the response and give support, like setting up a cordon. But Coastguard Rescue Teams are not animal specialists; that's left to the experts. 


So who *can* help a stranded animal? 

HM Coastguard will usually bring in trained volunteers from national charity British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) to make the key welfare decisions, often working with a vet. BDMLR was formed in 1988 and every year trains more than 1,000 Marine Mammal Medics whose role is to be on the scene to act on behalf of the animals’ best interests. 


What do stranded cetaceans die from? 

Cetaceans belong in the sea and being too long on land can lead to fatal exposure – like a human in a desert. Without the support of water, the sheer weight of larger species can also simply crush their internal organs, leading to death. 


Why couldn't the fire service spray them with water? 

Spraying with water won’t help for long, sadly, and like HM Coastguard, local fire and rescue services need to be ready at a moment’s notice to save the lives of people. Being caught up in a whale rescue could slow down their response and be dangerous if they needed to react fast to an emergency.  


How do you decide to rescue a whale, put it down or leave it to die?  

Before any decision is taken often BDMLR medics will assess the animal, including its health, sex, approximate age and how long it has been out of the water. Sometimes sheer size just makes a rescue impossible – a sperm whale can reach just over 18 metres (60ft) in length. 

Other considerations to judge whether a cetacean would survive refloating include the state of the tide, depth of local waters, and proximity to its usual habitat and food sources. For example, the BDMLR says it has no record of a northern bottlenose whale ever surviving being stranded in the UK, due to these reasons. 

If rescue is impossible and it’s kinder to the animal, sometimes they will be euthanised using an injection or firearm either by a vet, the RSPCA or a qualified marksman. But the bigger they are, the harder it is to carry this out humanely. In that case, it is kinder to keep them comfortable until they die naturally. 


What happens to the body? 

The landowner is responsible for the sad job of disposing of a cetacean's body. Often that is the local council. It can take a little while as sometimes experts will first ask for the body to run tests, and then heavy equipment has to be brought to the shore, which can often be hard to access. 


Why do cetaceans come ashore?  

There are lots of reasons why cetaceans come ashore, including injury, illness, bad weather and navigational error (which could be caused by human activity disturbing their echolocation). 

These can catch out the animals and lead them to be driven into shallow water by tides and winds. Sometimes a whole pod will follow a dominant member into trouble. 


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