Last week, our very own vet, Dr Helen, was part of a rescue team to save two dolphins (a mother and her calf) stranded on the mudflats at Castle Espie in Strangford Lough. Read on to hear her story, of a not-so-average day as a hospice veterinarian.
Early on Thursday morning two common dolphins were seen stranded on the mudflats of Strangford Lough at Castle Espie WWT. Thanks to eagle-eyed members of the public reports of the stranding came in quickly to the head offices of British Divers Marine Life Rescue, a charity dedicated to the rescue of our marine life in the UK.
As a BDMLR volunteer, I received the call to go out and assess the dolphins, with the hope that we could help them back to the ocean! When I arrived on the scene the incredible staff at Castle Espie quickly escorted me out to the mudflats where the Coastguard was waiting to help me. The initial assessment is much like the triage in a veterinary clinic. Signalment - species, age, sex. We had two common dolphins, one adult and one juvenile, both female. The assumption is that we had a mother and her calf. Next, I look at their vital signs. Although the adult was breathing faster than I would consider normal for this species, the quality of her breathing was good. All other vital signs were thankfully within normal limits. They both had some minor injuries which are not uncommon in strandings as the animals struggle. At this point, other members of BDMLR had arrived on site and we started to cover the dolphins in wet blankets (ensuring not to cover their blowhole), lubricated their eyes, and dug out the mud around them to allow their pectoral fins to sit in a natural position.
For once our Northern Irish weather was a blessing! An overcast and drizzly day was the perfect condition to keep these two beautiful animals comfortable while we stabilised them. I spoke to the BDMLR veterinarian on the mainland UK to relay my findings before we agreed that they were healthy enough to attempt a refloat.
Thanks to the thorough training BDMLR requires their volunteers to complete, we were able to quickly move both mother and calf into the nearby water, allowing their tired bodies the opportunity to rest supported in the water after several gruelling hours on land. The Coastguard were invaluable to our efforts, helping to keep our team safe while we focused on the dolphins. One wonderful member of their team even stepped in to support the Mum in the water while I stepped back to assess the situation.
The tide was rising fast at this point, with much of our equipment now floating past us! Once the water was deep enough I gave the all-clear to release and we watched them make their way back to the deeper water. Unfortunately, all the energy the calf had used up already that morning started to show and it was struggling in the current. I stepped in to support the calf, allowing it more time to rest and letting the worst of the tidal current pass. Upon the final release, the calf quickly made her way out to her mother and we were able to monitor them leaving the area while quickly finding our own way back to dry land!
Unfortunately, their misadventures weren’t over yet. As low tide returned we received reports that the pair had once again become stranded. Luckily this time the calf managed to get away before the water levels dropped too far but the adult was stuck. This time the mud they were caught on was treacherous. I spoke directly to the Coastguard and to BDMLR to assess the risk to people if we attempted to reach her. I decided that I had to try to get to her. A second stranding is not good news and suggests illness. I had been shown videos that the locals had taken showing her swimming abnormally before she stranded, also bad news. I was concerned that without our help she might not survive. There was also the possibility that if she was too unwell to refloat then euthanasia might need to be considered to allow her to pass peacefully and quickly. My home visits now include the ocean!
Sadly once I arrived it quickly became apparent that I was not going to be able to get out to her. Only taking two steps onto the mudflats left me stuck up to my thighs. Once the Coastguard arrived we made a new plan. Their specialised training and equipment meant they had a much better chance of making it out to her and the decision was made to drag me behind on a sledge to allow me to get as close to her as I could. Once again, the tides had other ideas. By the time we were ready to go the light was failing fast and the water level was rising quickly. I had to make the difficult decision to call off our attempt to get to her. At this point, the water was rising so fast that even if I could get to her there would be little I could do, and it was not worth putting human lives at risk for no benefit.
We all stayed at the water line late into the evening, watching the water rise over her and seeing her dorsal fin begin to move through the water. It quickly became too dark to see her but we all listened intently as the sounds of her splashing and exhaling through her blowhole slowly lessened and it was likely she had been able to leave the area.
I woke on Friday morning dreading the news that she had been spotted stranded again on the morning's low tide but so far there have been no sightings! Hopefully, this means both mother and calf are safe and staying out in deeper water.
This rescue would not have been possible without the Coastguard there to keep us safe, the staff at Castle Espie WWT, and all the wonderful animal lovers who helped us track their movements and reported sightings to BDMLR. These rescues are not without risk to the people involved so please always contact BDMLR before attempting a rescue yourself and never enter the water without an appropriate wetsuit or drysuit and a lifejacket. If you would like to learn more about how to get involved please see the BDMLR website here, for more information on the incredible work they do.