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Marine Animals off our coast

Louise De Lisle, Harbour Administrator, January 2017

There are several of us at the Harbour who volunteer for charitable organisations such as the RNLI, I myself being an avid scuba diver and passionate about marine life and the state of our oceans volunteer as an active British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) medic as well as a volunteer at the wildlife rescue centre at East Winch.

Working in a marine environment allows me access to cameras and resources to assist in a rescue and I am fortunate that WHC permit me to answer calls to marine animals in distress along the North Norfolk coastline, which are primarily common/harbour seals and grey seals, usually injured or sick. After rescue from the beach they are transported to wildlife rescue centres for rehabilitation and eventual release. Sadly not all make it but at least they are given a fighting chance for survival. The pupping season for common seals/harbour seals peaks in June/July and the greys pup November through to January so I can be called out at any time.

Seals haul out of the sea to rest and if you wander down to the beach you may be lucky enough to see them. Disturbance by dogs is the main issue at Wells, where owners disregard the signs and allow their dogs to run off the lead into the seal haul out area, which is often marked off with stakes and signs. With Wells becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination the beach is becoming busier each year, so if you do own a dog please adhere to the signs and keep your distance and dogs under control. Seals are wild animals, please respect them, avoid the desire to take selfies, you will be in for a hefty vet bill if your dog gets bitten!

Pups are often left alone on the shore by their mothers who may be offshore, so if you do see a pup alone watch it from a distance as the parents will be scared off if you get too close and may then abandon it. If after watching you think that it needs picking up then call for help keeping people with dogs away. To perform a rescue you need to be appropriately trained so please do not attempt any rescue yourselves. BDMLR hold regular courses throughout the year so if this interests you please go to their website or contact me and I will point you in the right direction.

Wells is also host to many nesting birds and it is an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take wild birds, take, damage or destroy their nest whilst in use, and take or destroy their eggs. There is additional protection applicable to schedule 1 birds such as the Little Tern where it is also an offence to disturb them while nesting, building a nest or disturbing their dependent young. This delightful chattering seabird is the UK's smallest tern which nests exclusively on the coast in well-camouflaged shallow scrapes on beaches, spits or inshore islets. Wells is a breeding site for this bird and you can recognise it by its short-tail, fast flight and its distinctive yellow bill with a black tip. Nesting bird areas are also signposted, such as the Outer Harbour berm so again please keep dogs under control.

Although seal rescue is the key component of the work of BDMLR, it has become progressively more involved in the response to stranded cetaceans in the UK and there were such strandings along our part of the coast in 2016. Unfortunately on Friday 22nd January 2016 I was called out to attend a live stranding of a sperm whale, the first of two at Hunstanton. An attempt was made by the RNLI hovercraft to herd the animal into deeper water, but on a falling tide the animal did not have enough water beneath it and beached again on the underlying rocks, it was a distressing sight to witness with the whale thrashing on the rocks unable to re-float itself.

The two strandings at Hunstanton were part of a total of 29 sperm whale strandings over a period of four weeks around the coasts of the southern North Sea, the largest stranding ever recorded in the area, 6 in East England, 1 in France, 6 in the Netherlands and 16 in Germany all thought to be from the same bachelor pod. Many stranded live but died subsequently. It was thought that the pod of sub-adults were feeding upon squid in the Norwegian Sea where their principle prey can be found and may have moved southward along the coast of Norway either following more squid shoals or perhaps seeking less turbulent seas from westerly storms. The fact that examinations of the first strandings contained several remains of squid backed up this theory. Examinations of later strandings had empty stomachs with the whales showing signs of dehydration (they obtain water from their prey) suggesting their food source had run out. Entering the shallower seas south of Dogger Bank into our waters they almost invariably strand with depths of 20 meters or less making it difficult to navigate using echolocation. Sadly their sheer mass works against them (young sperm whales weigh about 20 tonnes) and their health deteriorates rapidly risking respiratory failure following lung collapse as they rest on the substrate. There is little that can be done to save them once fully stranded or to relieve their suffering and major organ failure can set in within a few hours. Hundreds of people came out to look at the corpses of these magnificent leviathans, understandable in that many people do not get the opportunity to witness them alive in the wild for which I have been extremely fortunate.

Fin Whale Holkham Beach. Photo: Andrew Bloomfield, Holkham Warden
Fin Whale Holkham Beach. Photo: Andrew Bloomfield, Holkham Warden

Later In October 2016, a fin whale, a species listed as endangered and the second largest living animal behind the blue whale, stranded at Holkham beach. Alerted to this by wardens at Holkham I responded to see if the animal was still alive but it was obvious that the animal had recently died. Following photographic evidence it was determined that the whale had an apparent deep laceration on the left side of the body. The investigation by the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) noted that the position of this laceration roughly corresponded with the location of the distinct curvature in the body shape, the whale having a spinal abnormality. The presumption was that the injury might have been the result of an earlier ship strike. The degree of muscle wasting and spinal abnormality would have limited the degree of movement of the animal which would have impacted on its ability to dive and feed. CSIP put the cause of death to starvation, sequential to spinal abnormality (possible historical ship-strike).

To put strandings into context out of the approximately 600 cetacean strandings annually reported around the UK, between 2-4 per year are fin whales (data CSIP database, 2010-2015). The Holkham stranding was the fourth fin whale reported in the UK in 2016 and is the 10th reported on the southern North Sea facing coastline of England since the inception of CSIP in 1990 (data CSIP dataset, 1990-current). Fin whales can grow up to around 27m long and weigh about 70,000kg.

When strandings occur, particularly mass strandings, it is natural to look for a human related cause as humans , more than any other species, are responsible for causing pollution to the environment and extinctions of other animal species through hunting, decimation of habitats and by accidental by-catch. When people witness these magnificent animals in distress and being located in an area where there are wind farms off our coast there is a natural assumption this might be the cause. Wind turbines produce very low frequency sound under operation and if mounted on rock may transmit vibrations along the seabed, but in shallow water with a soft seabed such as off our coast, noise is propagated over short ranges as it gets absorbed into the substrate, so although possible seems unlikely, sperm whales are sensitive to much higher frequency sounds. In addition history shows that sperm whales have typically stranded in the southern North Sea long before the wind turbines were invented. Another suggestion of why whales strand is noise from seismic surveys in the region. Short-term behavioural reactions to low frequency sounds made by seismic have been observed in some baleen whale species, but little evidence that they have responded negatively. Noise from some source e.g. mid frequency sonar cannot be discounted but evidence is needed. So can anything be done to prevent such strandings? If it were practicable, one could potentially coax animals out of dangerous shallow areas with a flotilla of boats. However, if the wider region is all pretty shallow as in the case of the Southern North Sea the whales are most likely to strand again so a rescue is unlikely to be successful — sadly.

The cetacean you are most likely to see If you go out on a boat off the North Norfolk coast in a calm sea, is the Harbour Porpoise. The UK hosts some of the highest densities of harbour porpoises in Europe. Failure to designate Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for this vulnerable species led to the European Commission suing the UK Government for failure to allocate safe marine areas for harbour porpoises under the EU Habitats Directive. During 2016, the UK government held a public consultation on five possible sites, one being the Southern North Sea. In September 2016 Scottish Ministers approved the designation of the Inner Hebrides and Minches SAC a positive step forward. The sites require EU Commission approval before the UK can implement necessary enforceable measures to protect this charismatic cetacean, which I believe is essential. You can get further information pertaining to the sites on the JNCC consultation page.

Proposed SAC Areas ©JNCC/NRW
Proposed SAC areas. Image ©JNCC/NRW

So what should you do if you see happen to see a stranded dolphin or whale? Firstly telephone for help immediately, then if you have adequate assistance calmly approach the animal and gently roll it over onto its front, but be careful as they can make sudden movements. Try the best you can to keep its skin wet by dousing with seawater but take extra care not to get water down their blowhole, which is located on the top of their head. Again dogs and crowds should be kept away and noise and movement kept to a minimum so as not to further stress the animal. Do not pull its fins or tail or drag the animal and avoid their teeth and tail.

Remember marine animals are wild and can carry diseases which are transferable to humans. Always send for help, do not put yourself at risk of injury.

Numbers to call

British Divers Marine Life Rescue 01825 765546 (weekdays 9am-5pm) or 07787 433412 (out of hours).

RSPCA 0300 1234 999.

Dead whales, dolphins or porpoises should be reported to the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme hotline 0800 652 0333.