British Divers Marine Life Rescue

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British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) is a British charity established in 1988 and is the United Kingdoms leading marine mammal rescue organisation. The organisation's main areas of operation are within the United Kingdom and its territorial waters, however are often requested by international governments and charitable organisations to provide assistance and training in marine mammal rescue due to their vast wealth of knowledge, experience and available equipment.

BDMLR has developed an internationally renowned Marine Mammal Medic training program and has trained over 17,000 medics worldwide. To complement the Marine Mammal Medic training program BDMLR has also produced a Marine Mammal Medic handbook (currently on its 7th edition), that is used globally by various GO’s and NGO’s to deal with stranded cetaceans.

The organisation specialises primarily in pinniped (seals) and cetacean (porpoises, dolphins and whales) rescue, however will responded to stranded sea turtles, basking sharks, otters, injured or oiled sea birds and entangled marine mammals.

In 2008 BDMLR received specialised training from the Provincetown Centre for Coastal Studies (PCCS) in Maine in the United States of America, on how to rescue entangled large free swimming whales, and in 2013 after developing these techniques specifically for British waters formed the British Divers Marine Life Rescue - Large Whale Disentanglement Team (BDMLR – LWDT) made up entirely of trained volunteers ready to respond to entangled cetaceans in British and European waters.

BDMLR volunteers lead the attempted rescue of a Northern bottle-nosed whale in London in January 2006

The organisation was the subject of widespread media coverage in January 2006 due to its efforts in leading the attempted rescue of a northern bottle-nosed whale (the "River Thames whale") which became disorientated and distressed after swimming up the River Thames into central London. A large rescue operation began on the morning of Saturday 21 January and lasted until the evening when the whale died.

In more recent years amongst the hundreds of call out each year attended by BDMLR, the organisation spearheaded the major rescue efforts that were launched to save either mass stranded Pilot whales or pilot whales in danger of mass stranding at Loch Carnan in South Uist on the Outer Hebridies of Scotland in 2010, once again at Loch Carnan in South Uist on the Outer Hebridies of Scotland in 2011, at the Kyle of Durness on the North West Corner of the Highlands of Scotland in 2011, at Pittenweem in Fife on the East Coast of Scotland in 2012, at Portmahomack and Dornoch Point on the East Coast of the Highlands of Scotland in 2013 and Staffin Island on the West Coast of Scotland in 2015.

OPERATION NETTIE

In August 2015 BDMLR was contact by the Centre for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Maine in the US to assist as part of the global response network for large whale disentanglement as member of the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network (ALWDN) to a Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Iceland that was entangled in fisheries debris at the time suspected and later confirmed to be monofilament netting panels and lead weighted line from a Gill net array. This was following requests from local whale watching companies and NGO's following a failed but valiant attempts by local Coast Guard personnel to free the free swimming but fatally entangled creature. Several days of anxiety passed following the initial call for help whilst BDMLR through the International Whaling Commission (IWC)sought permission from the pro whaling Icelandic government to allow an international rescue team to come to the aid of the whale on welfare grounds due to the undoubted amount of suffering that the animal was experiencing and the prolonged agony and certain death that awaited it should nothing be done. After about a week permission was granted from the Icelandic government to attempt a rescue of the whale.

The ALWDN decided to form an international response utilizing BDMLR manpower and resources backed up by a team member from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in Cape Cod near Boston in the US. The following day the team consisting of 1 member from IFAW and 3 from BDMLR laden with over 150kg of specialist rescue equipment met up in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik in preparation for the following days rescue attempt, but due to the complexity of the entanglement, the sheer size of the search area (Faxa Bay) where the whale was last spotted and the unpredictable weather in the area the team had allowed a minimum of a week to conduct the rescue but even then the chances of even finding the free swimming animal was very remote, and given the lack of any form of funding support for the operation and the volunteer nature of its team members a prolonged rescue attempt over the designation period would not have been possible. Extract below from BDMLR website on the rescue event and its outcome.

BDMLR rescues whale in Iceland

A specialist team from British Divers Marine Life Rescue and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have recently been to Iceland where they freed a humpback whale from fishing gear within two days of arrival.

The entangled whale was first spotted in Faxa Bay, near Reykjavik on July 30th and attempts by local organisations to free the whale had been unsuccessful. The charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation put IceWhale, the Icelandic whalewatching organisation, in touch with BDMLR in the first week of August. Directors from BDMLR had initially received whale disentanglement training from the Centre for Coastal Studies (CCS) at Provincetown in the US, prior to setting up a Large Whale Disentanglement Team in the UK, so they were included in discussions and advice sought from them. CSS asked if BDMLR could assist by initially sending some equipment to Iceland, but bearing in mind the dangers associated with untrained people trying such rescues, BDMLR offered to send a small team to conduct the operation. As it was unusual for a foreign animal rescue team to be in Iceland, the government there was asked for permission and this was granted after several days of internal discussion about which department had jurisdiction.

Three of BDMLR's trustees and directors, Ali Jack, Mark Stevens and Geoff Hammock, flew to Reykjavik on Friday 14th August and were joined there by Brian Sharp from IFAW in the US. With over 40 whale disentanglement rescues under his belt, his knowledge and skills would be invaluable. The following day, the team went out into the bay on one of the Elding Whale Watching boats, supported by an array of other local boats and a Coast Guard patrol vessel. The flotilla set course for the last known position of the whale from the previous day. Several hours were spent searching for the whale until the call came from another of Elding's boats that they had the whale in their sight. The whale, whilst hampered by the fishing gear wrapped around its tail stock, body and through its mouth, was busy feeding and the rescue team then spent four hours playing cat and mouse (rather big mouse!) with it, working from a small Zodiac inflatable while they attempted to grapple the trailing line coming from the whale's tail. With the assistance of the support team on board the MV Elding the team were able to predict where the whale would surface for a breath and after several close intercepts struck it lucky and managed to get into a position, allowing them to throw a grapple that caught the line and then deploy their own lines, kegging buoys. The buoys help to slow the whale down, keep it surfacing and hopefully tire it. For the next 5 hours the whale didn't help as the team tried time and time again to pull the inflatable up the line toward the whale's tail to start the process of cutting lines on the animal using their specialist equipment. This operation involves 'Nantucket sleigh rides' where the inflatable is pulled along at several knots with its outboard engine up and out of the water, with the inflatable only being attached to the whale by the team member in the bow holding the rope. The rope cannot be tied to the inflatable as if the whale dived it would take the inflatable under along with the team into a potential nest of sub surface entanglement that would immediately drown anyone who entered the water. On several occasions "Nettie" would try to shake the team off by diving deep pulling the bow of the inflatable underwater, however the quick reactions of the team averted disaster time and time again by letting the rope go just in time. This is without doubt the most dangerous type of rescue the charity engages in and it is not one for the faint-hearted. Over the course of the Nantuckets the team would pull the inflatable up to within a metre of the thrashing tail of this frightened and confused gigantic animal travelling at speed and would start to cut the line as the tail would breach the water. Several crucial cuts to the entangled line were made, however with darkness falling and utter exhaustion overcoming the team, the kegging buoys were cut off and a satellite telemetry buoy was fitted to the control line so that Nettie could be tracked over night and of course found again the following day.

At 5am sharp on Sunday 16th August, the team set off once again to locate Nettie and quickly found the animal some 18km away from where it was tagged the following night. Now the operation had to start over again, trying to exhaust the animal and bring it to the surface and ideally to a dead stop. Nettie was as determined and as feisty as the previous day and again several hours of Nantucket Sleigh rides continued, but whilst it was evident that Nettie was tiring, it was obvious that the already exhausted team could not sustain a prolonged operation of this magnitude and that the team would tire before the whale did. A regroup was called so that a new strategy could be formulated. The team came up with a new method of attaching a large 4 foot buoy just behind the tail which it was hoped would stop the animal from diving and bring it to the surface for longer periods giving the team more opportunities to cut the line as the whale presented its tail. A new rig was quickly assembled on board the MV Elding using existing elements of the team's disentanglement equipment and off they went for several more Nantucket sleighrides. The new rig was proving very difficult and quite dangerous to get a decent attachment with Nettie trying to pull the inflatable under on several attempts, but eventually the team managed to attach the rig to within a metre of the whale's tail and the buoy was quickly pulled into position using the ingenious pulley arrangement they had constructed. The new rig had the desired effect and prevented the whale from diving and also had the unplanned benefit of providing a new separate control line which the team could utilise. The original control and trailing line with 3 kegging buoys attached and covered in potential snagging points and mono filament net which had been causing the team no end of grief through out the operation was discarded and left to trail harmlessly beside the inflatable. The team were now able to pull themselves up to within a metre of the thrashing tail, and each time the whale's tail would breach the surface, careful cuts would be made using the equipment. Eventually the team managed to cut the lines on both sides of the tail stock and the trailing line from underneath and Nettie swam free from the almost certain fatal entanglement. Pieces of rope remain on the animal as the entanglement was so severe with rope embedded deep into its tail stock, but it is expected that this rope will be expelled from the wounds during the healing process as has been documented on several previous post entanglement events on whales. An additional bridle remains from Nettie's head that runs through its mouth, but with both ends cut it is also expected that this will be expelled over time, possibly during feeding.

The team returned to shore exhausted and aching but exhilarated at the success of their endeavour. There has been so much support and concern for this whale in Iceland and the operation was supported by so many people it is impossible to thank every individual. Special thanks however have to go to Elding Whale Watching and Ice Whale for their concern and assistance. Whale watching boats in the area will be keeping an eye out for Nettie and recording sightings in the hope that the whale sheds the remaining loose lines and recovers fully from its ordeal. BDMLR extends its gratitude and thanks for all the support many others have provided.

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