The large pod of whales is circling off Loch Carnan in South Uist and up to 20 appear to have severe head injuries, raising fears they have already struck the rocky foreshore of the loch.
Experts in whale strandings from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and a senior inspector from the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) are travelling to the scene in case the whales attempt to beach themselves.
The rescuers fear that if some injured animals attempt to beach themselves, many others in the pod will follow them onto the shore, almost certainly leading to mass mortalities.
Alistair Jack, BDMLR’s Scottish co-ordinator, said the charity’s team in South Uist already had several sets of pontoons and the charity has 12 sets of the whale floatation devices across the UK: all of them were being despatched to South Uist.
“We first became aware of the incident late yesterday and have immediately responded,” Jack said. “We anticipate having trained medics and rescue equipment on the scene by mid morning. This is one of the largest events of this kind ever in the country.”
Calum Watt, the SSPCA’s senior inspector for the Western Isles, is en route to the loch. He said: “When pilot whales come inshore there is a very strong chance some among the group are sick or injured.
“We believe around 20 of these whales have severe head injuries but at this stage we aren’t sure of the cause. One possibility is these injuries were sustained during a previous attempt to strand themselves.
“Pilot whales have extremely strong social bonds, which sadly means healthy whales within the pod will follow sick and injured whales on to the shore.”
A pod of around 35 pilot whales were involved in a similar emergency at Loch Carnan, a small and narrow loch near the north eastern corner of the island, last October. After being closely watched by the BDMLR, the SSPCA and the coastguard, they went back to sea.
But less then a week later the same pod is believed to have been involved in a mass stranding in County Donegal in Ireland, when 33 pilot whales were found dead on a beach.
Pilot whales are among the most common cetaceans, and the adult male can grow to 20 feet long.
Watt said the largest number they have tried to refloat was seven, in 1993, but all seven returned to the shore and died. He was very worried about the prospects of saving so many whales if the new pod at Loch Carnan became stranded.
“At this stage we remain hopeful they will not strand themselves but our concern is the injured whales will come onshore and be followed by the rest of the pod,” he said.
“Attempting to refloat so many whales would be a huge task and if they do become stranded we’ll need to decide upon the best course of action.”
“It is incredible that a second pod, this time probably more than twice the size, has arrived in the same area. There is no reason we know of why they would have come to the same location.”
See also: http://www.wdcs.org/news.php?select=958