Sadness in Donegal as stranded whales perish

(Picture: Eamonn McFadden/PA)

Almost all members of a pod of 13 whales which live-stranded on a beach in Co Donegal yesterday have died despite the best efforts of locals to save them.

A spokesperson for the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) told that nine of the animals had passed away and been buried, and the remaining four were expected to expire in the coming hours.

"It's obviously a sad occasion but the best thing to do at this point is to leave them alone and let nature take its course," NPSW ranger Emmet Johnson said, advising curious onlookers to stay away from the beach.

"Council officials have buried the dead whales, and all will be buried in time."

(Picture: Eamonn McFadden/PA)

The 13 long-finned pilot whales were first discovered by a jogger at around 8am yesterday morning on a beach close to Falcarragh, known as the back strand.

Four of the whales died in the original beaching but a rescure operation involving a JCB and spearheaded by a group of locals managed to return nine of the animals to the waters of Ballyness Bay.

As word spread of the stranding throughout yesterday morning upwards of 100 people became involved in the bid to refloat the whales.

(Picture: Eamonn McFadden/PA)

However it soon became clear that the whales which were being refloated had little chance of survival, and as high tide arrived at around 4pm they again beached on strands around the bay.

Experts warned that their deaths were inevitable and the rescue effort was abandoned, with officials asking onlookers to stay away from the beaches around Falcarragh this morning.

(Picture: Mary McIntyre via Twitter)

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) warned that the re-floated whales were likely to be in poor condition, with stiffened muscles, unable to keep themselves upright in the sea and confused and disorientated.

“If you could pluck them out of there and set them gently into deep water and hold them their until their muscles relaxed they’d have some chance,” IWDG member Mick O’Connell said.

“People are bringing them out and the water is only four or five feet deep. They are not going to make a beeline for the deep water, chances are they do not know where it is.”

One of the whales, which was initially returned safely, appeared to have blemishes and lumps on its skin suggesting it may have been ill and led the pod into the shallow waters the first time.

(Picture: Mary McIntyre via Twitter)

The natural environment for a long-finned pilot whale is in a pod, in deep water, out near the continental shelf in the Atlantic.

Mr O’Connell said the creatures’ echo-location may also be hampered by the shallow waters on the gently sloping beach off Falcarragh and that it is extremely difficult to save a pod of whales, even with the right equipment.

Seamus O’Domhnaill, a local councillor involved in the rescue, said the whales’ conditions seemed to improve initially as the tide came in around them but later they appeared to be attempting to beach a second time.

“It’s not something you want to see everyday,” he said.

The first stranding was discovered at around 8am and the second at around 4pm.

In the first rescuers tied ropes to the back fins of the five metre long whales and dragged them off the sand into shallow waters, staying with them until they revived.

It is not known why whales beach.

A post mortem within 24-48 hours would be the only way of telling if one or all of the pod had been struck by an illness.

The Irish Coast Guard tasked a boat to the beach on Ballyness Bay due to the large numbers of people involved in the rescue efforts and others arriving to look at the dead and stranded whales.

The IWDG said the incident is the 13th stranding reported on Donegal shores this year.

There has only been one other live stranding in the county when a harbour porpoise was refloated at Lough Foyle in February.

Live strandings of pods of pilot whales are not unknown but relatively rare with one of the last major incidents in Ireland in November 2010 when 33 pilot whales live stranded and died at Rutland Island, Co Donegal.

The IWDG, which was alerted to the incident, said even with plenty of help, experience and specialised equipment such as pontoons, it is difficult to successfully refloat creatures that size.

Mr O’Domhnaill praised the spirit of the locals despite their efforts appearing to be in vain.

“This was a sign of community activism. There were about 100 people on the beach, some helping, some not, but none of us with much experience of this,” he said.

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