More than fifty pilot whales have died following a mass stranding in Scotland

In North Tolsta, on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, on July 16, 2023.

This is the largest cetacean shipwreck recorded by Scotland since 2011: fifty-five pilot whales were stranded in the north of the country, on the coast of the Isle of Lewis, on Sunday July 16. Fifteen of them were still alive when help arrived, but only one could be saved and refloated. The others were almost all euthanized, with rescuers only releasing animals healthy enough to survive, in order to limit their suffering. A pilot whale died naturally after being refloated.

The Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Program (Smass) is currently conducting post-mortem examinations on the cohort, which should identify the causes of this massive stranding in the coming weeks. “This is going to take monumental work. Unfortunately, there are more animals awaiting autopsy at this time than in all the strandings of the past decade combined”Smass director Andrew Brownlow told the BBC.

“Observation of the stranded pilot whales leads us to believe that one of the females endured a difficult calving, and may have drifted, weakened, along the coast.comments Dan Jarvis, coordinator in charge of species protection at British Divers Marine Life Rescue, the NGO mobilized as part of this operation. As the pilot whales function in groups, it is quite possible that the others followed it, and thus found themselves on the shore, whereas this species cannot survive out of water. »

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When beached, pilot whales, or pilot whales, which can be up to seven meters long and weigh up to three tonnes, struggle to support their weight, usually in the water. “Their organs are crushed under the weight of their own body”says David Lusseau, professor of marine sustainability at the Technical University of Denmark and member of the Cetacean Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Consequence: their blood circulation is reduced, to such an extent that toxins accumulate in their organism and poison them.

The possibility of a man-made incident

The last mass stranding of pilot whales in Scotland dates back to 2011, when 77 animals were shipwrecked – 20 were then rescued.

“In 2011, the stranding took place in the mainland of Scotland and not on an island, which allowed help to arrive more quickly and more animals to be releasedexplains David Lusseau. Pilot whale strandings are quite rare in the region, but the very strong social bonds of these animals mean that they are overrepresented among mass strandings, because if one of them has a problem, the rest of the group follows it”analyzes Peter Evans, director of the British foundation Sea Watch, which conducts research on marine conservation.

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