Why poor George couldn't be saved

VIDEO WHEN a seven-tonne whale appeared in the river Orwell at Ipswich this weekend, many people couldn't believe what they were seeing. But for a band of volunteer marine mammal medics it was a sight which is becoming all too familiar.

WHEN a seven-tonne whale appeared in the river Orwell at Ipswich this weekend, many people couldn't believe what they were seeing. But for a band of volunteer marine mammal medics it was a sight which is becoming all too familiar. Today they told how the operation to help the whale was one of their most difficult yet. Chief reporter GRANT SHERLOCK asks why the Orwell whale couldn't be saved.

AS a six-metre whale struggled in the shallows of the River Orwell, two men leapt into the water in the hope of herding it back into deeper water.

It was clear they were thinking what many of the onlookers amassed on the nearby riverbank were thinking - if only the whale could be convinced to swim back toward the sea it could have a chance to survive.

But while the hopes of many rested on the whale (dubbed George by rescuers, after George Orwell) making it back out to sea, the rescuers who were called in already knew its fate would be very different.

This was the fourth time in 18 months that the British Divers Marine Life Rescue group had dealt with a northern bottlenose getting stranded. Each time the whale had died.

In the case of the whale in the River Thames in January last year, the group organised a massive and unprecedented rescue operation, but even that was in vain.

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Faye Archell, the regional co-ordinator for the BDMLR, said following the first reports of a whale sighting in the Orwell at about 2pm on Friday, the group's hopes of a successful rescue were high.

Based on the information they had, there were hopes it was a species which wasn't too far from home. However when it turned out to be a northern bottlenose which should have been in the deep waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, their hopes were dashed.

Faye said: “We were quite positive on the way up, but when we first saw it was a northern bottlenose our hearts sunk. It didn't just have to get back to the North Sea, it had to get back to the Atlantic.

“They eat very specific species of deep water squid that aren't generally found in the North Sea.

“Where they live in the wild they swim in about 1,000metres of water with no one about them. It would have basically been deafened by all the noises about it.”

The BDMLR trains unpaid volunteers to respond to reports of seals, whales, dolphins and porpoises in trouble. Using their specialist first aid knowledge they do everything they can to help the animals survive.

Generally when Suffolk's volunteers are called out, it is to reports of seals or porpoises in distress, so when the call came through from a yachtsman that there was a whale in the Orwell they knew the task would be far more difficult.

“I don't think any of us slept for about 30 hours,” Faye said.

Whales get their liquid from the food they eat, so by the time the Orwell whale reached Ipswich the experts believe it would have been dehydrated and suffering quite badly from stress.

“I understand why people are questioning why we didn't try to rescue it but science is telling us these animals are so sick,” Faye said.

“When we realised it was one of the 'biggies' and there was nothing we could do, it was very hard.”

When the BDMLR experts arrived - some within 90 minutes of the call - they quickly made the decision the only thing they could do was put the animal to sleep.

“What we had to think about was this animal's suffering,” Faye, a lecturer in animal care at Writtle College, said.

Once it beached itself in the early hours of Saturday it faced a slow and painful death if they didn't intervene. So specialist vets moved in at first light to administer powerful sedatives which killed it.

It ended a sad episode for the rescue team, but they left with the knowledge its suffering could have been worse without their efforts.

For more information on British Divers Marine Life Rescue visit www.bdmlr.org.uk.

What do you think? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.

Ipswich resident ANDY HOLLIS works as a sub-editor at The Evening Star, but when he is needed he doubles as a marine mammal medic for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue group.

WHEN my phone rang around 2.20pm on Friday I had no idea that the voice on the other end would lead me and the whole town to focus on the River Orwell down by the bridge for most of the weekend.

I was called out in my capacity as a trained marine mammal medic to investigate reports of a whale in the estuary.

My interest in all things aquatic began as a child, angling in the Gipping before taking up sea fishing off Suffolk's coasts. I studied marine biology at university and although my career turned towards journalism I still am a passionate naturalist at heart.

So when the team that attempted to help Wally the Thames whale were offering the chance to learn to become a marine mammal medic in Ipswich, I jumped at the opportunity of getting up close and personal to such magnificent creatures should they need my help.

In May I completed a one-day course with British Divers Marine Life Rescue and had been waiting patiently since then to put my skills into practice.

At the Orwell bridge it was very difficult to identify what kind of whale we were dealing with as it only gave us brief glimpses of its back, on surfacing to breathe before disappearing again for another 20 minutes or so.

But from the shape and position of the animal's dorsal fin I could tell this was no pilot whale as first reported.

My excitement and exhilaration at seeing such a rare and beautiful visitor to our waters soon turned into anguish and sadness. It was obvious that George - as it was later called by the rescuers - was extremely stressed. The noisy rumbles from the traffic on the bridge were adding to its confusion, by interfering with its navigational senses, causing it to swim in circles.

I began to realise that any of hope of seeing the whale returned to sea were fading with every thrash of its immense body.

Dehydrated, starving and exhausted, the whale continued further into town away from its natural habitat.

On Sunday I waded out deep into the mud to pay my last respects and get a closer look at the now dead beast. It was a surreal sight and one that I will never forget.

So, although it amuses many of my colleagues, friends and family, I am proud to act as a volunteer for such a noble cause. And with the sightings of marine mammals seemingly on the increase around our shores I would encourage anybody else to join this highly skilled team of volunteers as an animal in such distress needs all the help it can get.

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