September 2nd   Leave a comment

Rescuers moving one of the larger long-finned pilot whales back into the water

The smallest of the dead long-finned pilot whales stranded today – the youngest of the group

The big news, quite literally, was the stranding of 26 long-finned pilot whales just east of Pittenweem early this morning. About 50 people worked most of the day to save them and brilliantly managed to refloat 10 of them on the high tide of late afternoon, but the rest died during the day. There were a lot of people on the cliffs above watching the rescue operation. Mostly this consisted of keeping the whales shaded and wet until the tide could make refloating them possible. It was a hot sunny afternoon which doesn’t suit whales (as well you might expect) so wind breaks were erected as sunshades, and whales were covered in old sheets and sea weed (handy for dorsal fins I noticed).There was then an endless succession of buckets of water poured over the whales. Every whale that was still alive in the afternoon also had a couple of people who were gently rocking the whale slightly from side to side, I assume to help prevent the weight of the whale, not now supported by the water, from crushing its own internal organs. It looked like hot and uncomfortable work for the people on the beach and cold and difficult work for those that eventually dragged the whales back out to sea. I was very glad to hear that the refloated whales had rejoined other pilot whales further out so hopefully they will not come back and strand themselves again.

Why do whales strand themselves? We don’t really know, but amongst whales, long-finned pilot whales are notorious for mass strandings and always have been. These are the whales that used to be hunted by Shetlanders and that are still hunted in the Faeroe Islands. They are particularly favoured because once one is driven onto a beach, the rest of the group (pod) will then usually follow. It’s like fishing where the fish actively jump into your boat. The pilot whales must have extremely strong social bonds and must look after each other out at sea. When one gets in trouble, the rest must congregate to help it out, and in deep water this must be a sound survival strategy. Like most behaviours, it only appears inappropriate because we see it out of context. Their grouping behaviour might have saved the life of every member of the pod at some time over their relatively long lives. It was only today, perhaps with a freak bit of bad luck as they followed some mackerel into the shore on a very high but falling tide that such behaviour turned against them. One individual may have got caught and the others tried to help, with the situation and the stimulation to group getting stronger and stronger as, one by one, more and more individuals also got caught as the tide fell.

One of the dead long-finned pilot whales – the long pectoral fins can be seen

Despite the deaths of so many of the whales, it was still an opportunity to have a good look at them. Whenever you see whales it is usually just a grey fin in a grey, choppy sea. Long-finned pilot whales are relatively common off UK shores. I think the fishermen have been seeing them in the Forth for a while now along with porpoises and dolphins that have been following the mackerel. But this was the first time I have definitely seen one and I watch the sea a lot. You could see their characteristic very long pectoral fins (their former front legs when they were land mammals like otters). You could also see their tiny, almost non-existent eyes and their regular peg like teeth. You can never see these details on a whale in the water. Despite the unhappiness of so many of them dying today, it’s still thrilling to know that they are out there and in such numbers that we can have a stranding of 26 animals at all.

Anyway, I would like to thank all the people who worked very hard all day today to get the 10 or so survivors back out to sea. That so many survived was entirely down to their commitment and expertise. It would have been a very sad sighting this afternoon if they had all been corpses. I hope the ten are out in cold, deep water chasing mackerel tonight.

The rescue scene – dead whales out in the open and the still living covered by sheets and shaded by wind breaks

First thing this morning I was out at Kingsbarns beach. I sat on the bank by the car park and watched the low tide shoreline and the sea for an hour. Perfect bird watching. Something to look at in every direction – dunlin, turnstone and ringed plover on the mud, goosanders and sandwich terns fishing in the surf, with eiders and guillemots further out, and further out still, the gannets. If you have half an hour to spend at low tide, drive down to the beach car park on Kingsbarns Beach – you don’t even have to leave the car park – and have a look, it’s one of the best places to birdwatch on a quiet morning. Do make sure that the wind is from the west though, like today. If it’s a bitter north-easterly blowing in from the sea, Roome Bay is then much better.

Goosander – there were over ten fishing in the surf at Kingsbarns this morning

There was a bit of obvious migration at Fife Ness this morning. A wheatear and a couple tree pipits on the golf course for the summer migrants heading for Africa, and a few flocks of siskins and redpolls for the winter migrants coming in to winter with us. A really obvious sign of migration over the last few days has been the steady stream of meadow pipits passing over Crail and along the shore. Only a week or so before the first geese of the winter!

Posted September 2, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

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