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Explainer: why nothing can be done for the Baltimore whale

Many of our readers have been wondering why the mammal cannot be ‘put out of its misery’. TheJournal.ie investigates.

Image: Hannah Judge via Twitter

Updated 11.09

THE YOUNG FIN whale stuck in the harbour at Baltimore in west Cork is still alive this morning.

A sorrowful and distressing sight, the 40-foot mammal has been thrashing its scarred and injured body since it reached the pier wall on Tuesday. Usually whales beach themselves before dying but, unfortunately, this one could not reach dry land as it was caught in the harbour.

Baltimore Harbour Master Diarmuid Minihane told TheJournal.ie that there is no way of knowing when the creature will die.

“Experts thought he wouldn’t make it through the first night [Tuesday] but he did,” Minihane pointed out. “Realistically, we just don’t know. Normally whales beach themselves but this one can’t so it is being prolonged.”

Veterinary staff and whale groups have indicated that nothing can be done to quicken the process for the dying creature. Already sick and emaciated, the whale struggles towards its end with many people and onlookers asking why it cannot be ‘put out of its misery’ immediately.

Mick O’Connell of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) has explained why the most common options are not viable in this situation.

A refloat

Getting the mammal back to sea should only be considered when it has a good chance of recovery. Refloating a cetacean correctly is challenging, potentially dangers and requires a lot of assistance and equipment. Even with pontoons, a refloat is only possible with an animal up to around the size of an adult pilot whale (c.6m).

In this situation, the whale does not have a good chance of recovery as determined by vets who are on site. Refloating is also not an option because the animal most likely weighs over 25 tonnes and could not be lifted safely. Towing using the tail stock is never an option due to risk of damage, injury and stress to the animal.

Euthanasia by drugs

In certain cases, euthanasia may be considered. Some drugs for such large animals are available in the UK but are not legal in Ireland because of their potency. There is also the issue of the disposal of the carcass in order to protect other animals who may feed on it. Euthanasia drugs authorised in Ireland must be used in quite large quantities for bigger animals and such a dose would be difficult to administer through the thick blubber layer of a powerful, stressed whale in shallow water.

Shooting

Shooting may be an option also but would need to be done by an experienced person taking into account public safety and the difficulty of quickly and cleanly shooting a large animal with deep layers of blubber and thick bone structure.

It would only result in bullet injuries to the whale reminiscent of the book ‘A Whale for the Killing’.

Doing nothing

The National Park and Wildlife Services (NPWS) section of the Department of the Environment has deemed that doing nothing is the best option for both the public and the animal. The IWDG agreed. It said:

This may seem like an odd choice of option but there is a difference between doing nothing, and choosing to do nothing based on best appraisal of a situation. There is no point in doing something simply for the sake of needing to do something as it is likely that the animal will just suffer more.
It is almost certain that the whale is going to die if it can’t escape to open water itself – so what we can do is treat it with some respect, give it space, don’t go near it, throw anything near it or do anything to increase the stress it is already under.

Large crowds have gathered to catch a glimpse of the whale in the past few days but the not-for-profit group has now asked the public to consider their decisions.

Think before you go down to see it – yes, it is a chance to see one of nature’s giants, but consider also that you or your family may find it a distressing experience.

It added that it can better ensure the animal is not stressed further by ensuring the surrounding area is quiet with no barking dogs or interference.

When the whale eventually passes away, an action plan has been figured out between the NPWS and local authorities. Its body will be removed and transported to Waterford.

[Update]

As of 11am, the IWDG has become concerned that the whale may remain in its current location for a number of weeks as it slowly starves to death or dies from its wounds.

Founder of the organisation Dr Simon Berrow described the situation as unacceptable.

“The initial response of non-interference was correct but the IWDG is now making enquiries about the option of shooting the whale,” he said. “This is the only way to euthanase it as nobody could enter the water to administer a drug, even if we had one powerful enough, and it would not be possible to administer remotely.”

The group is now exploring the possibility of shooting it with a high-powered rifle with the Defence Forces.

Berrow conceded that it “might take more than one shot” but agreed to take responsibility if no other agency was willing or prepared to act.

The whale is protected by a wide range of national and international legislation, enforced by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and although it is dying it is in the opinion of the IWDG, still their responsibility. Normally you require a licence from the Minister, and a derogation from these legal instruments, to interfere with a whale but this is an exceptional case and interference is necessary.

Yesterday: ‘A slow process’: nothing can be done for dying Baltimore whale>

Video: Young fin whale stuck in west Cork harbour>

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