Marine mammal emergency: Would you know what to do?

It’s human nature to want to help an animal in trouble and people will often go to great lengths - and risk - to do so. That's why RNLI lifesavers will sometimes step in or assist another rescue service to save animals’ lives at sea.

Marine mammal emergency: Would you know what to do?

Photo: RNLI/Dave Cocks

My name is Anna and I'm an editor for the RNLI. I'm also a diver and in my spare time, I volunteer as a marine mammal medic with British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) - a charity that responded to more than 870 marine mammal incidents last year.

Just as the RNLI looks out for people, BDMLR looks out for injured or sick seals and stranded whales, dolphins and porpoises around the UK.

The winter months can be hard on marine mammals, so your chances of coming across one while on a beach or coastal walk rise. With this in mind, I’d like to share some practical advice that will give you the courage and confidence to know what to do, as well as some of our lifeboat crew’s own close encounters!

Injured and sick seals

Seals are often spotted around our coastline but not every seal on land is in need of rescue. Most will have hauled out for a rest at low tide.

what's normal?

  • A seal laying on its belly or on one side, contorting its body into ‘yoga’ positions.
  • Barking at people; seals are less agile on land so can be easily frightened.
  • Tear stains. Seals don’t have ducts, so they appear to cry continuously.
  • Seal pups alone on the beach. Grey seals are born in the autumn and winter months. They are born with a white coat that they won't lose until they're weaned at around 3-4 weeks. Although they may look abandoned, they won't fully take to the water until this point. The mother seal may be close by, hunting during this time. Common or harbour seals are born in the summer but lack the white coat of a newborn grey seal pup.

when should i worry?

Netting

Marine animals often get tangled in the many discarded fishing nets, known as ghost nets, around our coast. The fine, plastic monofilament netting is hard to see and very stretchy, making it almost impossible to break without cutting.

As a seal pup grows, entangled netting and other types of rubbish (such as beer can rings) can cause nasty septic wounds as the plastic gets more deeply embedded in the flesh.

Not all seals can be helped. Large, adult seals are very difficult to handle so may be left if the entanglement doesn’t seem to be troubling them.

Wounds

Living in social colonies, grey seals do sometimes fight - particularly during mating, which happens within a couple of weeks of giving birth. This is a dangerous time for unweaned pups as they can be bitten or crushed by overly ardent males.

Seal pups are also more vulnerable to being thrown against the rocks in stormy seas. Dislocated jaws and infected claws are typical injuries seen with seals that have struggled for purchase on rocks.

Wounds can easily become infected, develop abscesses or lead to septicaemia. If you see a seal with any kind of wound or swelling, report it to BDMLR. Or if you're in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, see the end of this article for other organisations that may be able to help.

Illness

Seal pups can suffer from pneumonia and other respiratory diseases. Teary eyes are normal but mucus-filled, cloudy eyes are not. If one eye is kept closed most of the time, it could also be a sign of infection.

Other signs of illness include sneezing, coughing or rapid breathing, which is why it's important not to get too close to their heads.

Skinny, wrinkly pups

It’s normal for mothers to leave their pups on the beach while they swim nearby, but seal pups can become permanently separated after a storm, a large spring tide or human interference. If this happens before they’ve learnt how to hunt, they will become malnourished rapidly.

Grey seal pups are weaned on milk that is high in fat - excellent for building insulating blubber for the cold water quickly. Overly wrinkly or baggy skin with a visible neck, ribs or hips is a clear indication of malnourishment, as are a head or limbs that look out of proportion to the body.

what to do

1. Move dogs away from the area

Seals are often anxious and easily spooked when people or dogs venture too close while they’re on land. If you have a dog, move it well away.

2. Observe from a safe distance

A seal’s barrel-like body is deceptively bendy and they can twist their heads right around behind them! So beware; a seal bite is more powerful than that of a large dog and carries a nasty infection that must be treated correctly.

Even if the seal is not warning you off with a bark, be mindful that they may try to nip at your feet and ankles without warning. Keep a safe distance - and ask others to do so too.

3. Take notes

Help rescuers by noting down what kind of condition the seal appears to be in. If it is an unweaned pup, check the sea regularly for signs of a mother in the area.

Other information that will help a rescuer: 

  • type of beach, for example sandy or rocky, and any nearby features that can be used to find the seal
  • access to the animal and whether there are any hazards such as rocky outcrops
  • tide state (high or low and whether it's coming in or going out)
  • weather and sea conditions
  • nearest town
  • and photographs.

4. Call BDMLR

If in England, Scotland or Wales, call:

  • 01825 765546 (office hours)
  • 07787 433412 (bank holidays, evenings and weekends).

BDMLR will contact the RNLI if further assistance is needed or there is a potential concern for safety.

If in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, see the end of this article for other organisations that may be able to help.

5. Prevent it from entering the water

It may surprise you to know that seals need to spend about two-thirds of their time hauled out and so shouldn't be chased back into the water.

If you believe a seal pup needs help, try to prevent it from entering the water by standing between it and the shoreline. Under no circumstances put a pup back into the sea - younger pups are not strong swimmers and older pups are likely hauled out for a reason.

Do not try to pick it up or move it. Not only can this be dangerous for you but it could cause a healthy pup to become permanently separated from its mother and colony.

6. Stay to guide rescuers

Stay as long as you can to help guide medics to the location. 

A seal rescued by Redcar RNLI is released back into the wild

Photo: RNLI/Dave Cocks

A seal rescued by Redcar RNLI is released back into the wild

'It was fantastic to have a happy ending'

‘We were training down on the beach when we spotted this seal pup drawing a crowd,' says Dave Cocks, Lifeboat Operations Manager at Redcar Lifeboat Station. 'The seal pup was a bit intimidated by the situation and they can be bad-tempered little so-and-sos. We helped create some space around it and kept watch while BDMLR Medic Chris Thompson came down to assess it and then move it to a safer place for release. It was fantastic to have a happy ending.‘

Our advice to people is always: If it isn’t injured then leave it alone, it’s probably just having a rest; if it’s injured or looks sick then get in touch with BDMLR.’

RNLI crew members assist during a mass stranding of pilot whales in Pittenweem

Photo: Gordon Lang

RNLI crew members assist during a mass stranding of pilot whales in Pittenweem

Stranded whales and dolphins

Whales, dolphins or porpoises (cetaceans) do not strand under normal circumstances and require immediate assistance.

Out of the water, they lose their equilibrium as well as the natural support water provides their diaphragm and vital organs.

why do they strand?

Cetaceans will strand if they are malnourished, sick or confused.

Separated from its pod, a young dolphin or porpoise may struggle to feed itself and subsequently strand from weakness.

Pilot whales are very family-oriented, so if any of them strand due to age or illness, the entire pod will follow the stranded whale up onto the beach. This is the primary scenario of a mass stranding event.

Larger whales only occasionally venture into shallower waters such as the English Channel and southern North Sea, which are exceptionally shallow channels around our coasts. Used to deeper water, their sonar can be confused by gently shelving beaches or estuaries, causing them to strand accidentally.

Whatever the reason for stranding, a cetacean needs immediate assistance and medical assessment before any attempt is made to return it to the water. Historically, only 20% of single-stranded cetaceans have been healthy enough to be refloated, compared with over 60% of mass-stranded animals. 

what to do first?

1. Immediately call BDMLR

If in England, Scotland or Wales, call:

  • 01825 765546 (office hours)
  • 07787 433412 (bank holidays, evenings and weekends).

If in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, see the end of this article for other organisations that may be able to help.

2. Keep dogs and crowds clear

It can be exciting to see a dolphin or whale on the beach and the temptation is to crowd around and watch.

Fit and able people may be able to help with steps 4-7 in the next section, but ask observers to stand well back and keep dogs away from the area.

The first priority is to prevent unnecessary stress, as this can cause death in an otherwise healthy animal that could have been refloated.

3. Do not attempt a refloat

Unless you are specifically advised to by a medic, do not try to refloat the animal. Sadly, cetaceans have usually stranded for a reason. They may need medical attention and such an attempt could cause additional suffering.

4. Stay and keep watch

If it’s safe to do so, follow the next steps.

next steps

1. Safety first

Do not walk closely behind a whale or dolphin and do not lean over its tail. Even small cetaceans have powerful tails and when stressed they can raise or drop them suddenly.

Do not lean over the blowhole. Cetaceans exhale three times more forcefully than we breathe, sending out a powerful 300mph blast of air that is sometimes snotty! Like seals, they can carry diseases in their mucus that can be transmitted to people. Stay upwind if you are helping near the head.

If you have them available, wear a vapour face mask and gloves.

2. Support its pectoral fins

If the animal is on its side and small enough, roll it gently upright with its pectoral fins tucked into its sides - keeping your face away from its blowhole as you do so.

Dig shallow trenches beneath its pectoral fins to prevent them from being bent unnaturally, should it roll to one side.

Anatomy of a cetacean

3. Protect it from the elements

Wind and sun can be very damaging to a cetacean’s skin. If there are windbreaks or umbrellas nearby, use them to shield the animal.

4. Keep its skin wet

To prevent the animal's skin from cracking and keep its body temperature down (marine mammals can overheat quickly when out of the water, even in winter), cover it with seaweed or wet sheets and pour water over it gently and repeatedly. Make sure no water enters the blowhole.

Do not cover a dolphin’s eyes. Far from the calming effect this has on some animals, this can cause a dolphin to panic.

5. Send someone to a pharmacy

If there is a pharmacy nearby, send someone to buy a non-perfumed, inert lubricant. A BDMLR medic is trained to apply this to areas such as the eyes, blowhole and dorsal fin to help stop these vulnerable areas from drying out.

6. Look for signs of injury

Make a note of any injuries. If there are a few of you, have one person monitor and record breathing rate.

Take photographs with your phone from different angles as these will be useful to BDMLR. It gives the BDMLR coordinator at the end of the phone the opportunity to assess body condition and any species-specific considerations.

7. Sing (yes really!)

Cetaceans become stressed when stranded and there can sometimes be a wait before refloating is appropriate. Dolphins respond to being sung to, so don’t be shy.

if you find a dead cetacean

The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) collects a wide range of data on each stranding found on UK shores and may be interested in carrying out a post-mortem examination of a dead animal. 

If in England, Wales or Scotland, please call them on 0800 652 0333.

If in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, see the end of this article for other organisations you can contact.

A rescued dolphin is released back into the sea by Flint and Rhyl lifeboat crews

Photo: RNLI/Paul Frost

A rescued dolphin is released back into the sea by Flint and Rhyl lifeboat crews

'Such a feeling of pride and happiness'

When a dolphin became stranded on sandbanks in the River Dee, Flint lifeboat volunteers were called to help. They had to hoist the dolphin into the lifeboat and carry it down river to the sea where it was released with the help of Rhyl lifeboat crew and a BDMLR volunteer.

‘To see the dolphin going off and know we’d helped it gave such a feeling of pride and happiness,’ says Rhyl Crew Member Paul Frost.

‘The RNLI’s fast boats can take rescued animals away from potential stranding securely and safely,’ says Stephen Marsh, Operations Manager at BDMLR. ‘That’s where they really come into their own. Knowing that RNLI crews are always there to help if needed is a great support to us.’

‘There’s a wee baby one!’

I couldn’t end this article without one of our favourite marine mammal moments from last year when Dunbar lifeboat crew spotted a baby dolphin swimming alongside the lifeboat. Make sure your sound is on!

Want to help save our sea life?

Founded by divers, BDMLR is uniquely equipped with specialist whale pontoons, four 8.5m rigid inflatable boats (RIBs), ambulance trailers and rescue kits.

Each year, the charity trains over 400 on-call volunteer marine mammal medics, including individuals from the RSPCA, Scottish SPCA, HM Coastguard, the police and the fire and rescue service.

You don't have to be a diver to become a medic. If you're interested, find out more about the course and get in touch via their website at bdmlr.org.uk.

Our volunteers come to the aid of whales and other animal life in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.

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