Lessons to learn from whale's death


After the protracted death of a fin whale in Baltimore harbour, experts and locals are calling for a humane policy to be put in place to avoid a similar ordeal

CURIOUS crowds flocked to Baltimore, Co Cork, as news spread of the sea creature’s arrival on Tuesday. Sleek and perfectly streamlined, the 15m (50ft) fin whale circled the bay before coming to rest in the shallow rocks of the breakwater. On Thursday it died after a protracted, distressing ordeal.

Eyebrows were raised when ice-cream vans arrived, and as day one drew to a close the scene took a gruesome turn. The distressed mammal thrashed in the shallow waters of low tide, shredding its delicate skin on the sharp rocks, inflicting deep gashes.

Respect for the dying creature drove many spectators from the scene, but a hardened few maintained their voyeuristic vigil. Camera phones snapped and children chomped chips, seemingly oblivious to its suffering.

“The level of ignorance over this has been fairly shocking,” says Padraig Whooley of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG). “The first day it was an amazing spectacle and we were encouraging people to come down. When were you going to get to see the second-largest animal at smelling distance? But by Wednesday the whale was clearly in its death throes and we were asking them not to come down.”

For Colin Barnes, a whale-watch tour operator and an avid observer of the fin-whale species, the scene struck a personal chord.

Just days previously, his partner, Nicola Nesbitt, had died of cancer, and watching the fin whale’s protracted death brought his own loss home to him.

“It was horrible to watch. Smashing itself off the rocks and bleeding. Its skin is not designed to come into contact with hard surfaces. Having just watched my partner Nico waste away from cancer, this was particularly difficult to see,” he says.

Barnes is a highly experienced observer of the fin whale. An oceanic animal, it tends towards deep waters. The south coast of Ireland is one of the few populated land masses where regular sightings of the whale are recorded.

“They are a most spectacular animal, streamlined and sophisticated. Fin whales eat whole shoals of fish at once – it’s a dazzling sight. They are an awesome hunting animal with incredible skill,” he says.

Two things struck Barnes as unusual about the event. Fin whales travel with blood relatives, never alone. The location of the attempted beaching was also peculiar.

“It’s odd there were not more whales with it. And it is really odd how it came into Baltimore. They have astonishing perception, they are master navigators, they never get lost. So it’s a very deliberate act for one to come ashore,” he says.

Fin whales are in abundance along the south coast from June through to March, and have occupied waters along the west Waterford and east Cork coastline for the past number of weeks. They will only begin to move west of Kinsale Head in the coming days, following shoals of herring moving west, says Barnes.

Online and at the shoreline, debate increased over options to end the whale’s misery. There were discussions with Defence Forces about euthanising the whale. A refloat was out of the question. The IWDG opted to let nature take its course.

“As humans, we always think we have to intervene but wildlife rarely does better when we do. In this particular case the ‘do nothing’ approach was the only option open to us,” says Whooley.

When the ordeal dragged on into Thursday, IWDG members formulated an extraordinary plan. Support from Army and Navy officials was secured.

“This animal had suffered to the point where, once darkness came in, the military were likely to arrive with mounted machine guns capable of blowing up tanks. That’s how desperate we were to end it,” Whooley says.

In the event, the whale died at around 11am on Thursday. With increased whale activity in Irish waters, more strandings are likely, and communities need to be prepared, says Whooley.

Youen Jacob, a bar owner and volunteer for Baltimore Lifeboat, says the whale’s plight had a huge emotional impact on local people.

“It went on for three days. It was too long – a lot of people were distressed. If it’s going to happen more and more, there should be some proper policy in place to euthanise or someone who can deal with it straight away,” he says.

Padraig Whooley is one of 17 watch leaders guiding land-based whale watches at headlands around the coast tomorrow from 2pm-5pm.

See iwdg.iefor a list of locations.

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