Five things you can do for whales and dolphins during a live stranding on the beach

Would you know what to do if you encountered a live stranded marine mammal such as a dugong or whale on the beach?

A marine mammal stranding happens when an individual or group of marine mammals ends up ashore and they are often weak, sick, or lost. They may have been ill, injured from harmful fishing practices, or  strong tides may have brought them ashore.Popular vacation areas for swimming, snorkeling, and diving such as Zambales, Cebu, and Negros Oriental are among the “stranding hotspots” in the Philippines. Unless you know the correct and quick response to a stranded marine mammal, you may end up stressing it instead of relieving its pain.

pepo pasigna (5)
Dolphins and whales are prone to stranding due to disease and injury caused by fishing activities

There are several possible scenarios that you may encounter – live beached stranding, live shallow water stranding, and stranded dead animal. Each requires its own set of instructions.

We listed below five things you can do as a first responder during a live stranding of a dolphin, dugong, or whale on a beach according to the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines. Remember that once a marine mammal strands itself, it is a race against the clock to ensure that it can survive and return to the sea.

1. Inform the authorities.

Contact the concerned regional office of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) using the numbers on their website. Dolphins and whales are under their jurisdiction. BFAR has experts who have the needed supplies that would help ensure the survival of a stranded dolphin or whale.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) likewise has technical staff who can properly respond to marine mammal stranding.

Trained personnel should properly document the stranding which will allow residents, officials, and scientists to learn more about the current state of marine mammals. This should include:

  • Notification of the stranding
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Rescue team’s account
  • Initial response
  • Actions and decisions taken
  • Data and specimen collected
  • Findings
  • Supplementary information, and
  • Critique of the stranding response

The sooner an expert arrives on the scene, the higher the chance of survival for the stranded marine mammal. In case you have problems contacting BFAR, Balyena.org also has a list of contact people who are ready to assist in case of a stranding.

2. Minimize the crowd.

The animal will be stressed when it is beached. Avoid rushing to and crowding around the stranded marine mammal. Ideally, there should only be one person next to the creature.

3. Do not pull or push the marine mammal back into the sea.

Unless you have the proper materials, do not attempt to pull or push the dolphin, whale, dugong, or turtle back into the sea as this may harm and stress them. Attempting to carry the marine mammal without proper training may cause it to panic and injure itself and anyone carrying it.

4. Keep them upright.

An initial action that you can do is to keep them upright by making sure the dorsal fin is pointing upward. For dolphins, ensure that the blowhole is free of any obstruction since they will still use that to breathe.

parts of dolphin
Check the important parts to recognise on a dolphin when dealing with a live stranding (Photo: Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines)

Dig holes where the flippers are so that they may lay in a natural position. If there is any sand on the eyes, pour water over the eyes to help rinse out the sand.

5. Cool the marine mammals.

Dolphins and whales have a lot of blubber, which helps keep them warm underwater. When they are out of the water and in direct sunlight, they will start to overheat.

Keep dolphins cool
Keep a marine mammal cool by using an umbrella and covering it with wet towels. Make sure the blowhole is not covered (Photo: Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines)

The best thing to do is put an umbrella over the marine mammal to protect it from direct sunlight. Put wet towels on the skin and pour water over the skin to keep it moist. While doing all this, remember that you should avoid covering or putting water into the blowhole. Keep the marine mammal cool and wet until the experts arrive.

The best option would be to care for the stranded marine mammal and wait for personnel from the BFAR or the DENR to arrive. Take note that oftentimes, a marine mammal may not survive a stranding regardless of how effective the rescue attempt was because of the severe damage caused by dynamite fishing or sickness from pollution.

Volunteering for Marine Mammals

For those who are interested to volunteer for marine mammals, organizations like Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines and Balyena.org can help you become a certified volunteer.

There are also training events that are open to the public so they can learn proper rescue, documentation, and necroscopy (post-death examination) when it comes to marine mammal strandings.

Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines also has a handbook on rescuing stranded marine mammals as part of their Philippine Aquatic Wildlife Rescue and Response Manual Series.

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Written by Panji Brotoisworo with inputs from Dr. Arnel A. Yaptinchay of the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines and Ms. Amida Diwata M. Jasma of CTI-SEA

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