ARCHIVE: Whales and dolphins: strandings ... what to do
Coming across a cetacean (a collective term for whales, dolphins or porpoises) stranded on a beach or in shallow waters isn’t something that happens often - but it does mean that the animal, if still alive, needs urgent help. In the case of a live stranding, the speed of response of a rescue team is a vital in determining whether or not the whale or dolphin can be returned to the sea. Please telephone for help as soon as possible.
If the cetacean is alive
You can usually tell if the cetacean is alive because it will be breathing through its ‘blowhole’ (the animal’s breathing hole on top of its head). Though this is not always the case as some species of whale can hold their breath for over an hour.
Telephone the numbers below and try to give details of:
- an exact location
- an accurate description to aid the rescue team in determining what species it is
- details of its breathing rate (how many times the blowhole opens per minute)
- whether it is in the surf, on rocks or sand, in the shade or in the full glare of the sun
- information on weather conditions and sea state can also helpful.
- whether any attempts have already been made to push the cetacean back into the sea
- your mobile number if you have one so that you can be contacted by the rescue team
England: BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue): 01825 765 546 or RSPCA: 0300 1234 999
Scotland: If it is ALIVE: SSPCA on 0131 3390111
Wales: BDMLR: 01825 765 546 or RSPCA: 0300 1234 999
What you can do while you wait for help to arrive
- Return to the scene and try to keep members of the public and other animals at a distance to avoid further stressing the whale or dolphin. Noise and motion around the animal should be kept minimal and calm at all times.
- If adequate help is available, try to keep and support the animal on it’s front and keep it’s skin wet by dousing with water. If possible use sheets or towels, even seaweed, and spray with water. Make sure you do not cover or let any water pass down the blowhole on the whale’s head.
- Dig trenches under the animal’s pectoral fins (pair of fins situated behind the head).
- It is fine to support a small dolphin or porpoise in shallow waters as long as the blowhole is kept above the water at all times, and as long as it carried to the water carefully ie, with the use of a tarpaulin. Do not pull the animal by it’s fins or tail.
- Estimate the length of the animal and look for any distinguishing feature that may give clues as to the species you are dealing with.
- Look for any signs of injury and count the number of breaths (opening of the blowhole) that occur over a minute - this can give important clues as to how stressed the animal is.
- be careful: do not put yourself at risk. Avoid the animal’s teeth and tail (especially large whales’ as they are powerful and can inflict injuries) as cetaceans may make sudden movements. Also avoid the animal’s breath, as cetaceans can carry bacteria and diseases transferable to humans. If at all in doubt just wait for help to arrive.
- Children are particularly at risk from marine mammals and should stay well clear of them. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling marine mammals.
Under no circumstances try to release the animal into the sea before it has received first aid and assessment from experienced personnel, doing so can do more harm than good.
If the cetacean is dead
The whale or dolphin may be dead if it isn’t breathing through its blowhole – the animal may also smell badly as well. If this is the case then you should contact the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP). The Institute of Zoology leads the consortium of partner organisations (Natural History Museum, Scottish Agricultural College, Marine Environmental Monitoring), so please us the telephone numbers below to report a strandings, including details of the location of the dead animal with reference to maps and local landmarks and features where possible.
England: Natural History Museum: 0207 942 5155. Seals and turtles: Zoological Society of London 0207 449 6672
Scotland: Scottish Agricultural College: 01463 243 030 (Out of Hours: 07979 245 893)
Wales: Marine Environmental Monitoring: 01348 875 000
It should be remembered that diseases can be transmitted from the dead bodies of mammals to humans, so care should be taken and no contact made with the animal until the appropriate protective clothing, such as thick rubber gloves, is available. Such infections are called Zoonoses.
If you would like to be trained to help rescue stranded animals like whales and dolphins, then follow the link below to enrol on a training course.
More useful links
Find out more information on the UK CSIP;
Find out which dolphins may be found stranded on UK coasts
Find out which whales may be found stranded on UK coasts
Page published: 16 June 2009
Page last modified: 20 December 2007