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What should you do if you find a dolphin or whale on the beach?

Posted on: 10.05.13 (Last edited) 10 May 2013

Edita Magileviciute, Marine Programme Development Officer, recently delivered a training workshop for local community members in Maio, Cape Verde, on cetacean rescue. The Maio Whale Strandings Response Team is now poised for action should the need arise.

In recent years Cape Verde has been the scene of major whale and dolphin mortality events resulting from mass strandings on the beach. A ‘mass stranding’ describes when pods of up to 200-300 individuals come onto shore. In the last decade alone, there have been 28 mass strandings, resulting in over 1,000 deaths. Scientists are still uncertain of the cause of these tragic events.

A tragic mass stranding on the beach. Credit: Pedrin Lopes.

A tragic mass stranding on the beach. Credit: Pedrin Lopes.

It is possible that sick or dying whales may be washed ashore or may swim too close to shore and become stranded. It is also thought that the shape of the beach and coastline may sometimes contribute to strandings. Whales may respond to distress calls from stranded, ill or injured whales, and a large group may follow a leader, resulting in a mass stranding. Noise pollution due to seismic exploration, military exercises or boat traffic could also contribute to the cause of cetacean strandings.

Recognising the need for additional practical knowledge, Fauna & Flora International (FFI), in partnership with the Maio Biodiversity Foundation, organised a community training workshop on cetacean strandings and rescue for local community members.

Credit: FFI/FMB.

The training kicked off in the classroom where I shared knowledge on cetacean biology, physiology, local whale and dolphin species identification, and the possible causes of cetacean mass strandings.

Credit: FFI/FMB.

We then covered first response techniques, data collection methods, stranded animal handling and transportation, health status assessment and health and safety procedures.

Credit: FFI/FMB.

On the Vila do Maio beach we held a practical session to reinforce theoretical knowledge and get some hands on experience with two (plastic) ‘stranded cetaceans’: a bottlenose dolphin and an orca.

Two teams of trainees assessed hypothetical situations and practised live stranding rescue procedures.

Credit: FFI/FMB.

The first and most important consideration is to keep animals moist and cool by covering them with wet sheets.

Credit: FFI/FMB.

Providing shade to prevent sunburn is also essential, along with securing the location to prevent unnecessary disturbance.

Credit: FFI/FMB.

The next step is to assess general body condition of the animal by collecting as much data as possible. Participants took photographs and measurements, counting hypothetical breathing rates and assessing external body condition. These actions could help to identify the potential causes of a stranding.

Credit: FFI/FMB.

If a dolphin shows signs of good health and is relatively calm (under the circumstances) it would then be time to start ‘refloatation’ – by carefully returning the animal to the water. Trainees enacted the instructions they’d received in the classroom and transported the ‘dolphin’ into the water.

Refloatation technique requires a high level of collaboration between rescue team members. It is advisable to try to refloat several dolphins together with the largest female at the front as she is often the matriarch of the pod and may call the others out to sea. This has been shown during successful rescues with highly sociable pilot whales.

Credit: FFI/FMB.

The animal is gently supported by rescuers’ hands, ensuring it is kept close to the surface with the blowhole above water, as it is guided seaward.

Credit: FFI/FMB.

And once the dolphin is ready, it’s time to let it go…

Cetacean rescue requires a good deal of improvisation, leadership and organisation in addition to technical knowledge. I am extremely fond of all of our training participants who are now proudly called the Maio Whale Strandings Response Team.

Credit: FFI/FMB.

Written by
Edita Magileviciute

Edita is a part of FFI's Eurasia team, and is responsible for the development of a marine conservation and ecosystem services programme. With an MSc in Zoology and Marine Mammal Science, she has been actively working in the marine ecology field for a number of years with a special interest in whales and dolphins. Like a whale, she migrated from Central America to the east coast of Africa studying various cetacean species (from elusive harbour porpoises to magnificent humpback whales). Eventually it became clear that in order to have a healthy environment for one species, a balanced relationship should be maintained between people and the marine environment. So, she joined FFI where - applying this approach - she and the team (alongside local partners) have started developing marine conservation projects in the Mediterranean basin.

Other posts by Edita Magileviciute
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