For those who come to the rescue of these stranded animals, the experience can be heartbreaking and exhausting.
Few BDLMR operations have been as difficult as the mass stranding that took place in Traigh Mhor, Lewis over the weekend, in which over 50 pilot whales died and only one was rescued.
Although McFadyen was not present at Traigh Mhor, he has attended other strandings and recalled the impact of being present at the major stranding of over 70 pilot whales in the Kyle of Durness in 2011, which has been documented was caused by underwater bomb disposal. On this occasion some escaped the stranding, others died on the beach and the rest were refloated by the team.
“I know exactly how people would have felt there yesterday,” he said. “Most people think whales are relatively calm, but walking between them and hearing them screeching and clicking together, hearing them get frantic, it hits you emotionally.”
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Whales that are suffering often have to be euthanized. This, Mr McFadyen said, is one of the ways to help stranded mammals who are too injured to get afloat. But it is a particularly difficult task for those who must carry it out.
“We end up having to shoot animals for animal welfare reasons and I’ve seen ghillies who have absolutely no problem putting deer and other animals out of their misery and crying after they did it to whales. It’s a completely different scenario.”
“From the stranding in Durness we had quite a few good videos of people walking around with professionals and cameras while we took stock of the animals. I have medics who, even today, ten years later, still swallow and react to the memory of what that scene was like.”
Just got into Stornoway to investigate what appears to be the largest deadly mass #stranding Event we have had in Scotland for decades. over fifty #pilot whales sadly confirmed dead. pic.twitter.com/bOKTnrqD8l
– MASS (@strandings) July 16, 2023
This intense reaction, he said, is a testament to the special connection humans feel to these marine mammals.
“I don’t think,” he said, “anybody can describe what it is, but it’s definitely there.” There’s no doubt about it. We’ve had rescues where coastguards, firefighters, ghillies and all sorts of people have been there and we’ve had navy divers and everyone feels it. There is something mystical about it.”
In the past year there were over 3,000 missions by the BDMLR, 70 percent of which involved seals, many of them young dogs. But McFadyen also coped with the recent stranding of white-beaked dolphins in Fraserburgh in early June.
With the exception of Cornwall, there are more marine mammal rescues in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK.
“Also,” Mr McFadyen said, “we tend to have more mass strandings than anywhere else in the UK.” It’s partly the nature of geography. The reason Cornwall and Scotland are the hardest hit is because these coasts are the closest to deep water. We have many beautiful shallow coves to rest or get stuck in.
“We have lakes that the animals can explore, which they then can’t get out of. We face many interesting challenges for marine life.”
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Notably, all but the four core BDMLR staff are volunteers. This includes everyone who has worked throughout the day to help the pilot whales at Traigh Mhor – people like Sara Wood-Kwasniewska, who works as a paramedic during the day.
Mr McFadyen recognized their efforts: “Everyone who was on site at Traigh Mhor was a volunteer. That’s a big question. Yesterday people came from most of the islands. We had Fire Department, Coast Guard, CalMac. They all went out of their way to do something to help.
“Ca Mac did an excellent job of making sure there are places even though they had been booked for some time. They did a great job making sure there was space for the paramedics to get there and help.” . There were passengers on the standby lists who gave up their seats to let people through. There were so many people and we want to say thank you to everyone who cares and wants to help.”