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Porpoise saved in rescue operation


East Anglian Daily Times

12th May 2003

A DRAMATIC marine animal rescue operation was mounted after a harbour porpoise got lost and found itself stranded at the Hythe in Colchester.

The unlucky cetacean, a five-foot long adult female, was spotted by 13-year-old Alex Smith as he was out with a friend by the River Colne near SB Wheeler and Sons' scrap yard.

Alex spotted the porpoise swimming along a stretch of the river at low tide on Saturday morning (10th May ), but before long the disorientated mammal became entangled in debris.

"At first I thought it was a big fish," said Alex, a Sir Charles Lucas schoolboy who lives in Laing Road on Colchester's Greenstead Estate.

"Then I saw the fin and I thought it was a dolphin. It swam along the river under a bridge, but then it got tangled up in some trolleys.

"I told my mate to stay where he was and went and got a man, who called the RSPCA."

Before long, Tendring District Council's nature warden Leon Woodrow – who regularly encounters harbour porpoises while working on the Walton Backwaters – was called to the scene.

Fire and rescue workers stretched out a platform over the mud so that the porpoise could be reached and Mr Woodrow managed to free the animal.

He then moved her on to an inflatable where she was kept moist and cool while the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) travelled from Kent to come to her aid.

James Barnett, a vet with the BDMLR, accompanied three colleagues down to the riverbed and stabilised the porpoise, which he said was in considerable distress.

With the help of a crane from Wheelers' and a fire service sling, the porpoise was lifted from where she was stranded and placed in the back of a pick-up truck.

The animal was then driven to the hard at West Mersea where she was put back in the water.

"At first she was making good progress but then began to deteriorate," said Mr Barnett. "We spent about three hours trying to refloat her.

"She lacked co-ordination and was suffering from muscle tremors."

Mr Barnett said he was considering euthanasing the porpoise when at about 7.30pm she suddenly showed a remarkable improvement.

"We had been there for about three hours when she suddenly kicked off," he said.

"For the next hour, until it got dark, we watched her tacking backwards and forwards about 100 to 300 yards offshore.

"I wasn't really that confident, but people on Mersea have been keeping an eye-out and she doesn't seem to have re-stranded," he said.

Mr Woodrow – who is himself a member of the BDMLR - said that porpoises had been reported in the Hythe area before but only at high tide.

"This one was swimming in against the tide. It must have been totally disorientated," he said.

"However, there has been no sign of her washing up again so we are hoping it was a successful refloat," he added.

Young Alex Smith said he was also keeping his fingers crossed.

"I feel glad I spotted it, but also sad because it was a bit out of order for the porpoise," he said.

"It was trapped and cut. All the people around it must have been scared.

"I'm hoping she is safe now and doesn't get stranded again."

Harbour porpoise facts

Source “Marine Mammal Fact Sheet Series: Harbour Porpoise

* Harbour porpoises are only found in the Northern Hemisphere.

* They are one of the world's smallest cetaceans – a member of the whale family – growing an average of 1.5 metres long.

* They can live for up to 20 years.

* Renowned as deep divers, they can reach depths in excess of 200 metres.