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Common dolphin rescue - Brixham, Devon, UK.

British Divers Marine Life Rescue

31st July 2003

At 07.00hrs on Thursday 31st July BDMLR Director & vet, James Barnett, received a call from Plymouth & Devon Co-ordinator Arie den Hollander that there were two dolphins in the inner harbour at Brixham, Devon. The animals appeared to be in distress and HM Coastguard had alerted Arie. Initial reports claimed that a member of the public had refloated both animals in the middle of the previous night.

James contacted myself shortly afterwards and passed me the details. I was contacted within a minute of this call by the RSPCA's HQ at Exeter to give me the same details. I immediately contacted Fred Caygill of HM Coastguard at Brixham who confirmed the details.

I then contacted the Exmouth groups phone co-ordinators, Aimee Luxton and Martin/Marion Hall, and asked them to start alerting Medics.

I contacted Medics, Rachel Smith and Kim Simmons who live in South Devon, and asked if they could make their way to Brixham.

I left home and collected the BDMLR Marine Rescue Ambulance from Exmouth Fire Station and started to head for Brixham Coastguard offices, arriving at approx 09.00hrs. I met Rachel, Lindy Hingley (Brixham Seawatch) and Fred Caygill. The dolphins were not visible from the Coastguard building but we then heard from Nigel Smallbones (Goodrington Sands Seashore Centre and Medic), that the dolphins were swimming in circles just inside the breakwater near the breakwater slipway. I was joined by my colleague Sarah Haddon (RSPCA Inspector). At the slipway we were able to see the dolphins for the first time. They were two Common dolphins and their behaviour was a little odd for this pelagic species. Lindy was able to confirm that she had seen Commons in the harbour before and that they normally make there own way out. We observed the animals for the next few hours and saw them move a short distance in the area of the marina pontoons. We advised a number of boat owners to keep clear.

(Photo: 'Breakwater Slipway', Brixham. Credit: Tony Woodley)

RSPCA Inspectors; Becky Wadey, Neil Thomas and Steve Donohue arrived as well as BDMLR Medics; Janet Bailey, Gemma Barker, Kim Simmons, Melanie Hinde, Dave McDonald, Pete Marten, Howard Rushton and Jane Fletchpeters (these medics arrived at different times throughout the day).

Vet, Nick Lloyd, attended from the Kingsteignton Vet Practice and discussed the dolphins with myself and, of course, James Barnett on the phone. The RSPCA RIB was launched so we could carefully take a closer look at the animals. Nick, two RSPCA colleagues and I took a look at the dolphins. They appeared to be in reasonable condition but their swimming was confused and they had no reaction to any boats, even the large Lifeboat when it started up and motored out on an exercise.

We continued to observe the animals and a decision was made between myself, Nick and James, that if the animals came within the reach of us while we could stand in shallow water, we would restrain them and then deal with as if it were a stranding event. The dolphins came very close to the shore on a number of occasions but never close enough to handle.

The whole incident was gathering the public and locals and also the media. The BBC had a small unit 'shadowing' the RNLI and they filmed much of the incident.

The member of the public who had dealt with the animals the previous night came forward and gave us valuable information concerning their previous behaviour.

By approx 17.00hrs I was becoming very concerned about the dolphins behaviour. They had not moved away from the same approx 20m x 20m area for a number of hours and their respiratory rate was raised to an average of 6-8/min. One of the animals was beginning to role on its side and both were lifting their heads above the water when surfacing. By this time I was the only RSPCA rep their and we had all the Medics present. After a discussion with James and Nick, who had now left to be called back if needed, the tough decision was made to take control of the incident and attempt to catch the dolphins.

Two RIBs were sourced (the RSPCA RIB had now left). One from David Hickman of Torbay & Dartmouth Power Boat School and one from a young chap seen motoring around. His name was Niall Ingham and he happily agreed to help us and provide the use of his small RIB. IBEX canoe club had launched about 15 canoes, with instructors Andy Jago and Jim Thomson in charge, and initially we were going to ask them to keep clear.

However, I asked them to assist us by providing a
'surface wall' behind the RIBs and to tap gently on their
canoes with their knuckles if the dolphins approached.
They were asked not to use their paddles apart from to
paddle with. Of course these canoes had no propellers
and as a result were to become invaluable to the rescue.

(Photo - BBC)

Janet Bailey and I went with Niall, Dave McDonald and Gemma went with David on his RIB. The other Medics were to remain on the shore and assist with the handling of the animals once we had them in the shallows. Initially the dolphins slipped past the RIBs but eventually with gentle coaxing, canoe tapping and myself and Dave in the water holding on to our RIBs, we managed to get the dolphins on to a slipway (approx 18.45hrs). Earlier we had sourced two airbeds from the Breakwater Beach cafe and the dolphins were slid on to them. Of course their respiratory rates were raised at this point but we were able to get these reduced after the dolphins were made comfortable. The usual first aid was given (sheets, KY jelly etc). The vet was called to re-attend. Both animals were approx 1.5m long (weaned) and were in good body condition. They both had minor scratches and lesions but none were of any concern. One had a number of cetacean teeth 'rake' marks on its melon.

Left to Right around dolphin
Medics; Janet Bailey, Melanie Hinde, Dave McDonald, Rachel Smith, Jane Fletcherpeters.
Photo: Dave Sanders HMCG

By this point I guess we had about 300 people trying to see what we were doing. This really tested our resolve. The Coastguard officers and I had set up a cordon to keep the public back. Some people were abusive and some questioned what we were doing. I spoke to the crowds on a couple of occasions to try and let them know what was going on. Eventually ... after two phone calls (one a 999) ... the Police attended and assisted us.

Nick returned and examined the dolphins with advice from James on the phone. One animal was slightly more stressed, but not greatly. It was agreed that the best plan was some initial first aid treatment and then a refloat attempt at the seaward facing Breakwater beach ... outside the breakwater. The slightly more stressed dolphin was given a shot of antibiotics and both were stomach tubed with 400mls of fluids. Thankfully I had previous experience of stomach tubing a cetacean from my days at the National Seal Sanctuary.... this was invaluable experience for this day.

The dolphins were placed into individual RIBs. The Torbay & Dartmouth Power Boat one and the RNLI Inshore Lifeboat (ILB), which had now attended. The one in the ILB was on the floor of the boat and the one in the bigger RIB was placed in a stretcher and transported across the seats. This stretcher worked very well.

Left to Right - Medics

Tony Woodley, Gemma Barker, Pete Marten

Photo credit: Dave Sanders HMCG

Medics went with each animal to care for it on the short journey around the breakwater. I remember looking across to the ILB and seeing a lifeboat man using his helmet to pour water over the animal ........ did we have buckets/watering cans there?

We arrived at the beach at approx 21.20hrs and immediately started the refloat. The public had been prevented from accessing the beach but were able to see what was going on from the breakwater and rear of the beach.

Medics were rotated to ensure no one got too cold and the dolphins were gently rocked and encouraged to 'hold their own'. The Coastguard supplied hot drinks and lighting, which were very welcome. The ILB stayed for a while and the crew assisted with the rotation as well.

Initially the dolphins did not respond too well and consideration was given to the idea of an 'all-night' refloat. The slightly weaker animal initially did not respond as well as the other and we also considered whether that animal should be euthanased to allow the release of the other 'fitter' dolphin.

Thankfully these possibilities did not happen as they both started to improve quite quickly. At approx 23.15hrs and after discussion between myself, the Medics, Nick and James, the decision was made to release them. Both animals swam away from the beach quite strongly, though not at a fast rate. They stayed in close 'formation' and slightly veered to one side before we lost sight of them in the dark. We walked the length of the breakwater (about 1km) with spotlights to search for them, but there was no sign.

We had a quick debrief back at the beach with more drinks from the coastguard before we all left the scene. I got home at about 01.05hrs on Friday morning.

One apparent sighting of a dolphin in the harbour was reported at about 9.00am on the Friday (1st August). Coastguard auxiliaries and Nigel Smallbones took a look but nothing was seen. No sightings have been reported since.

In Conclusion

This was a complex incident with a number of factors effecting our decisions;
- The animals were pelagic
- They had been in the harbour for at least 36 hours at the point of refloat/release
- They had not made any obvious attempt to swim strongly away to deeper water

Personally, I believe that the weaker animal may have been accompanied by its companion into the harbour. If we had not acted to take control of the incident, I believe either we would have watched them become even more distressed and possibly drown or they may have stranded in such a poor physical state that a refloat would have not been suitable.

I was extremely proud of the attending Marine Mammal Medics. They worked phenomenally well as a team and used their training well. They used their heads to think and not their emotions..... such an important point when dealing with such a public incident. Thanks to Marion hall and Aimee Luxton (Exmouth Medics) who could not attend but did 'rally' the troops. Nick Lloyd, the vet, had never dealt with a cetacean but with the expert advice and guidance given by James Barnett he was of great importance at this incident and hopes to train at our upcoming Medic course in September. James, on the end of a phone, was an invaluable member of the team.

Plan of Rescue - Brixham Harbour, Devon

The BDMLR Marine Mammal Medic course training was essential to the apparent success of this rescue.

Many thanks to the following for their fantastic assistance;

HM Coastguard Brixham, RNLI Brixham, RSPCA, Niall Ingham (RIB), Nick Lloyd (vet), David Hickman (RIB), IBEX Canoe Club, Brixham Marina Staff, Breakwater Beach cafe (airbeds, food and drinks).

I hope to organise an informal debrief, maybe in a pub, to invite those involved to come and give their opinions on the incident and look for points we could improve upon in the future. More details to follow soon.

Only satellite tagging will provide us with the complete outcome of such events ...... BDMLR are to make a concerted effort to raise funding for this work.

Tony Woodley
Exmouth BDMLR Rescue/Training Co-ordinator
(& RSPCA Inspector)