Rescuing A Dolphin
Do NOT try this at home.
A blog post by Felicity
Many of my blogs tend to focus on nature, animals and marine life in particular. If you have read any of them you will already know this. I have such a fascination for the sea and a love of the creatures who live there, that my husband and I set up a marine based conservation show called Curios Aquatica in the hopes that through education and entertainment we can help to make a difference. The plastic, fishing nets and rope, the oil and noise pollution constantly harming the sea and the life within. The over-fishing harming many species, but sharks especially so. The cetacean parks such as SeaWorld imprisoning and torturing these sentient, clever and highly evolved species. We set up Curious Aquatica to raise awareness about all of these and to raise money for marine charities already trying to help save the seas.
The sea is my passion but I would help any animal in need and through the years my family and I have cared for many animals, many of which were brought to us injured. Through careful care and rehabilitation those animals were able to return to the wild once more.
This morning I was browsing on Facebook whilst getting up the energy to clamber out of bed to face the day (not that there has been all that much to do during lock down as we have been in strict shielding in my household!) when I saw a post about a stranded dolphin, less than a mile from our house, uploaded a mere eight minutes previously. I searched the comments to see if the situation had been resolved and upon finding that they were struggling to get in touch with anyone to rescue the creature, I leapt from the bed (startling Greg considerably as I am not in the habit of such lively behaviour first thing of a morning) and started throwing on clothes, explaining to Greg the situation and encouraging him to do likewise.
Once dressed I located some buckets (I didn’t know how ‘beached’ the dolphin was from the sparse information in the post and if the dolphin had been out of the water it would need to be kept moist), and a blanket (we looked for our stretcher too but couldn’t immediately locate it and didn’t want to delay any longer) and off to the site my sister, Greg and I went.
Upon arrival we were met by a few bystanders and one lady trying to get into a dry suit. She explained that she was from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and that she was trying to get in touch with other agencies to help, but she was struggling. While my sister tried to help this lady by trying to phone these agencies herself, Greg and I assessed the situation.
The dolphin (a young bottlenose from the look of it) had been swimming in the causeway when the tide went out, leaving it stranded in a mud bank in the estuary. The dolphin was not, as I had first feared, stranded on the mud and drying out. It was in shallow water, caught in the mud. The biggest problem was that the dolphin was caught on its side. This meant it could not keep its blow hole out of the water and was in real danger of drowning.
Greg took one step towards the dolphin and sank instantly to his knees. It was a long way through this thick muck to reach the dolphin in its shallow bank of muddy water. With some effort Greg freed himself from the mud and raced back to our van for the 100 foot of rope we keep in there (luckily Greg is an escapologist so 100 foot of rope isn’t hard for us to lay our hands on).
I tried again to discover from the BDMLR team member what the plan was, but she was still struggling to get assistance. Her team was meant to be bringing a pontoon and boats to help aid with the dolphin rescue, but we were struggling to find out where they were or how long this would take. In desperation the coastguard and lifeboat station (and RSPCA) had also been contacted. She even asked if any of the bystanders had a boat, but none did. I explained that I was able to get out to the dolphin to support it so it wouldn’t drown, but she told me that the mud is too dangerous and that we had to wait for the groups from the other organisations, or her own team, to arrive instead. By this point she had struggled into her dry suit but felt unable to break protocol and go any further.
At this point I want to make it perfectly clear that rules are usually there for a reason. If someone had become stuck in that thick mud when the tide turned they would have been at real risk of drowning. Also, I am aware that many people panic when they become stuck and that would have made things even worse. On top of that, the dolphin was a wild animal and they can be very unpredictable. Humans need to respect animals and interact with wild animals as little as possible. This is very important to remember – and had that dolphin not been drowning at that moment I would have followed this good advice and left it to the professionals.
In this situation, however, there was no sign of the professionals coming to the rescue. The one person we had didn’t feel able to break the rules and assist us or the dolphin (although when we went ahead anyway, she did offer advice from the bank).
I know I am a good swimmer. I also know how to move across that kind of terrain without sinking or getting stuck (during my years’ training as a ranger I ended up sinking and moving through a lot nastier stuff than this mud!). I know a lot about cetaceans and how to handle wild animals while staying as safe as possible and not causing the animal in question any more harm or distress. I had my husband running down the road with his 100 foot of rope and my sister on the bank ready to assist in any way needed. I had my team and I couldn’t stand by and watch this dolphin drown when I knew we could prevent it.
I tied the rope around my waist and slithered across the mud (to the cheering of the watching crowd and the concern of the BDMLR team member) towards the dolphin. Once there I looked back and found one of the other members of the public had seen me make my move and rushed to kit up in his wet suit and was making his way towards us too, using my rope to guide him as he slid towards us. The BDMLR team member seemed torn between the fact that her job was to stop us, but her passion was clearly to save the dolphin, and so she began to offer instructions and advice from the bank.
Once the man reached me, we positioned ourselves on either side of the dolphin and carefully re-positioned it so that it was resting gently on my legs and its blowhole was finally clear of the water, and it could breathe again at last. Once able to breathe it vocalised gently to us. A few squeaky whistles and I felt as though the breath I hadn’t realised I was holding released (and Greg tells me that the same emotion was felt by everyone on the bank as the sound carried to them). I checked the dolphin over as best I could considering my pinned position and the murky water we were in, but, aside from a few scratches, I could see no injury. The more worrying thing was that the dolphin’s eyes were closed and I could feel that if we let go, the dolphin would have tipped back over onto its side.
Back on the shore some of the bystanders who had been wanting to do something, but were not sure what to do to help, had taken up the rope along with Greg to ensure that they would be able to recover me and the other helper if things started to look dangerous. The lady from the BDMLR continued to point out that she couldn’t physically help us and she had to tell us that what we were doing was dangerous and we should wait for her boat (she later spoke to Greg and told him that she was sorry that she had had to keep repeating it, but it was part of her job). Greg pointed out that we weren’t going to let the dolphin drown while we waited for a boat, which we had seen no sign of, but that as soon as her boat arrived we would be happy to hand the task over to her team. At the moment, however, we were all the dolphin had, as the professionals were either not there yet, or not able to do anything because of their rules.
Once more of her team arrived it was decided that two of them in dry suits would come into the water and take over from us, still using Greg’s rope for safety (my helper and I did say we were still fine to help in any way needed, and were not in any difficulty in the water).
The first of the team had joined us when the Coastguards arrived and the plan fell apart. The leader of the Coastguard would not let another person come out across the mud to us until their ‘mud team’ had arrived from the other side of the Island, nor would they allow one of us without dry suits to return as they didn’t have equipment to allow us to ‘safely’ cross the mud (which we had already crossed).
It was frustrating to me, my helper and the lady from the BDMLR who had joined us, as well as the other member of her team who was kitted up and ready to join us but then unable to do so. Some members of the BDMLR team admitted that while they cannot officially condone my rule breaking, they are glad we did it as the dolphin would most likely have drowned before anyone got to it if I had not.
A lot of movement then occurred on the bank. All the while I was thinking it was finally the team ready to assemble the pontoon or do something, anything, to help the dolphin in my arms but none of it was. Somehow it became an unnecessary mission to rescue us rather than the dolphin – and, Greg told me, as much time seemed to be spent by the leader of the coastguard on making sure that the public were not around as it was on anything else. Greg pointed out to another member of the team that there was no way he was letting go of my safety line while I was on the other end of it, and luckily found that most of the coastguard were much more friendly and prepared to listen than their boss. It still seemed that no amount of reassurance from us that we were fine, we were definitely NOT stuck, that we were NOT cold, that we just wanted the team to take over with the dolphin for us and we would all be fine, seemed to get through to the agencies on the bank.
In the end, boats appeared on the water (we first thought it was the coast guard but instead it was the harbour master) which we thought were the boats we had been waiting for to assist the dolphin – but no, they were there for us. More faffing followed and the result was that I had to let the BDMLR lady take my position while the Ventnor Mud Specialist Coastguard Service took me to shore.
They did not ‘rescue’ me -despite what they apparently told a member of the press later. I had informed them that I was fine, and both of us in the water (and, I later found out, Greg on the bank), made it clear that I could get myself to shore, but would be happy to allow them to take me themselves if they preferred (I had been in the water over an hour and could understand their concerns on that score), but only once we knew that the dolphin was not going to be left without care. There was only one thing in that estuary who needed rescuing, and that was the dolphin.
After being checked over and the Coastguard team agreeing with my assessment that I was fine, I was sent home to shower and warm up. Watching the news streams for updates afterwards, the hours passed so slowly and with such slow progress with the dolphin. Eventually they got it onto a pontoon and onto the bank to be assessed by a vet, before the decision was taken to put it down. We still don’t know the reason why it was put down, although we will update this blog if we discover the reasoning behind it.
I guess my reason for writing this particular blog is largely down to frustration. We try to raise awareness and money for charities like the BDMLR whose mission it is to save these amazing creatures, yet due to endless rules and regulations with regard to health and safety, today we saw them having to stand by, not only unable to assist in saving a dolphin, but actually having to try to tell us not to. Of course, there must be rules, but there should also be the possibility to treat each circumstance on its own merit. The professionals I spoke to all truly seemed to care as I do for these animals and yet they could not act to save it in time. Members of the Coastguard, BDMLR and the public thanked and commended me for what I had done once I was out of the water, and yet the members of the organisations had been required to try to stop me from doing it. I find it so disheartening. One of the BDMLR team even said that she would like me to do the training and join their team and I was tempted… until I realised that then I would also be bound by their rules and would have been sacked today as I would have still been unable to sit by while this dolphin drowned.
It is so difficult to do the right thing when there are rules which were designed to keep you safe, but would require you to go against your conscience and heart to follow. It is so hard.
I would like to make it clear that I am not having a go at the people who came to help. Almost without exception the BDMLR members and Coastguards were friendly and seemed torn by the problem of wanting to help save the dolphin and wanting to follow the rules. The problem comes with the lack of possibility for these people to adapt the rules to suit the situation.
Thank you for reading, stay safe,
P.S. If you would like to see us with cetaceans in happier circumstances, do watch our visit to the grey whales of Magdalena Bay, Mexico below.