Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Save The Whale (and other marine mammals)

I've always been fascinated by wildlife but have never really had the opportunity to interact with many animals apart from the usual household pets.  Scuba diving has given me the chance to see all sorts of varieties of of marine wildlife at close quarters but nothing very big (unless you include sharks at Deep Sea World).  I would love to get up close with dolphins and whales but, so far I've not even come close to seeing any while diving.  The opportunity came up to do a Marine Mammal Medic training course with BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue) so I jumped at the chance.  Thank you to Zan for arranging it and to Debbie for roping the divers in as well.  Thanks also to Rhona for the photos.

Saturday 7th April was the date and I'd to be at Largs in time to catch the 8:15 ferry to Millport on Cumbrae.  To say that was a challenge for me was a total understatement.  Anyone who knows me knows that I really don't do mornings and, as I live on the wrong side of the country, I had to get up at 4:30am to be sure of getting there  on time.  The gallant Allan had offered to drive so, at 5:15am, I set off to drive to his house where we met up with Sam and then picked Angela up on the way to Largs.

We arrived at the University Marine Biological Station in Millport in plenty of time and headed up to the classroom.  The class was more or less a 50-50 split of scuba divers and Glasgow University students studying a subject related to animals.  The course is aimed at members of the public so there is no need to have any prior knowledge of marine animals.  The morning consisted of a video about BDMLR and its work then a lecture on cetaceans by Alistair (Ali) Jack and one on seals by Jamie Dyer.  After lunch we all donned our drysuits and headed to the bay in front of the town for the practical session.  Thankfully the weather was kind to us considering it was a bank holiday weekend, so we weren't being battered by wind and rain.  It didn't look too different from this except there was more sand and less water.  The amount of water vs sand was significant once we started the practical session.

Some wee boys on the beach were having a debate about whether the whale was real or not.  Obviously they missed Angela standing in the water holding a pump while Ali filled our replica victims with sea water before we started.  They investigated all of our practical sessions, acting like we didn't know they were there as they discussed what was going on.  Maybe they thought they were wearing Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility.  The pump:

And the semi-filled whale.  You can just see our wee seal pup in the bottom right:

First job was to learn how to refloat a stranded whale - in this case a water-filled replica Pilot whale weighing over a ton. We all gathered round Ali and the whale on the beach while he demonstrated how to fit the inflatable pontoon around the whale and inflate it.  Then we were split into two teams of 9 to practice what we'd just learned, one team leader and 8 medics.  Team 1 (my team, not that I'm boasting) executed a textbook pontooning (is that a word?).  Sadly, the tide was on it's way out and there was no way we could wait until it came back in to float our pontoon.  That meant we'd to work as a team to move the pontoon down the beach and into the water.  It was hard work but we did it.  It takes an awful long time to get into water much deeper than your ankles at Millport when the tide is out.

Team 2 had a go and then went on to learn how to refloat a dolphin while Team 1 went along the beach to see Jamie and learn how to deal with a seal pup.  We gathered round the very cute looking, water-filled replica pup while Jamie explained how to assess the health of a pup and demonstrated how to get in close enough to examine it and remove it to a place where it can be cared for, if necessary.  Seal pups have teeth and, like any other animal that is injured and scared, it might try to bite a rescuer so it's good to know how to approach it without risking a bite.

Last task of the day for Team 1 was to learn how to assess a dolphin, then use a tarpaulin to transport it back into the sea and refloat it.  Ali explained the procedures and we set about placing our tarpaulin under our water-filled Common Dolphin.  The receding tide and lack of handles on the tarpaulin added a bit of a challenge to the transportation but we still got to the water faster than Team 2, not that I'm boasting. :)  Then we spent some time re-establishing it's equilibrium before letting it go.  Afterwards Ali told us that BDMLR do have dolphin stretchers with handles but at least we know that if we don't have access to one a tarpaulin will do the job just fine.  Our stranded dolphin:

We headed back to the Marine Biological Station to sum up and receive our medic packs that included an ID card, a Marine Mammal Medic Handbook and this rather nifty badge:

We are now, apparently, the West Of Scotland Marine Mammal Medic team and are waiting for our first call-out to go and put our new skills into practice.  Look out stranded marine mammals, we're coming to save you.:)