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Meet a marine mammal medic

Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 12:33 UK time, Thursday, 12 August 2010

Guest blogger: Stephen Marsh is the Operations Manager for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), the primary marine animal rescue organisation in the country. The BDMLR responds to call-outs from the general public, HM Coastguard, the police and the RSPCA.

Each year the BDMLR responds to over 400 call-outs ranging from entangled seals to stranded whale and dolphins.

You may remember in last year's Autumnwatch, Kate Humble trained to be a volunteer BDMLR medic. Teams of volunteers are spread across the country. These teams have access to a wide range of equipment allowing them to deal with the strandings of marine animals, oil spills, fishing gear entanglement and any other type of marine animal in trouble. Our main priority is for the animals' welfare. Where possible we will attempt to refloat and release the animal, however our main focus is to ensure that they do not suffer.

Kate training as a marine mammal medic © Gavin Parsons BDMLR

Kate training as a marine mammal medic. Autumnwatch 2009 copyright Gavin Parsons BDMLR

I've been a volunteer for BDMLR for many years and it's always been a privilege to feel that your actions actually do make a difference to an animal's well-being. I've been called out to seal, harbour porpoise, dolphin and whale rescues in the South East where I live. These local strandings tend to happen after a storm or when there's been a spring tide, when we get very high tides followed by very low tides. The vast majority of these rescues resulted in the successful release of the animal back to its natural habitat. I was also a member on the team which was involved in the rescue of the Thames Whale back in 2006. 

Stephen Marsh with a stranded common dolphin © Gavin Parsons BDMLR

Stephen Marsh with a stranded common dolphin © Gavin Parsons BDMLR

Marine animal strandings can happen for many reasons, but it is usually when the animal's ability to feed or simply fight the water has been compromised. This might be due to natural causes such as disease or a parasitic infection, an abscess, old age and/or bad weather having exhausted them. It can be more simply due to a youngster being separated from their mother or a navigational error.

Stranded pilot whale, Cumbria © BDMLR

Stranded pilot whale, Cumbria © BDMLR

Unfortunately, though, sometimes the problems are caused by man where wildlife is disturbed or injured by fishing nets or boat traffic. In addition, some dolphins and whales can be confused by underwater sonar testing which drives them to the surface too quickly, or into areas where they wouldn't naturally occur.

The success of rescuing these animals really depends on the species and the problems the animal has. If we can approach a wild animal that is stranded and it doesn't react to us, then something is wrong. Seals can very often be rescued and rehabilitated, and will usually have the strength back after a few weeks at a seal hospital. Porpoises and dolphins are small animals and can get washed up even when healthy, so sometimes it is possible to get them back to the sea successfully. Quite often these strandings are due to a navigational error. I think many of us can relate to getting lost by misguided sat nav.

The larger the animals, though, the less likely we will be able to save them and we find that many of the whales that strand are not in a fit state to return to the water. In all cases, it is a vet who will decide whether or not an animal is fit enough to be fully rescued and rehabilitated.

Medics monitoring a stranded whales breathing rate © Brett Lewis, BDMLR Whale rescue

What do I do if I find a stranded marine animal?

If you find a distressed or stranded marine animal then the best thing is to get in touch with the BDMLR on 01825 765546. We need to know exactly where you are and what you can see - please don't get too close to the animal as it may get distressed, but take a good look. Make a note of whether it looks thin, if its eyes are dull, if you can see any blood or mucus or if there are any obvious signs of damage.

Have you seen any marine mammals in your area? Do you have any stories of strandings on beaches that you have visited?

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