Backdated to 6th June, 2015

As I sit looking at this blank page I'm struggling to know where to begin. It's been a long week and it almost feels like a fading nightmare, that dark day. You might wonder why I'm being so melodramatic so let me explain.

Tuesday started like a usual working day for me, up at 3.30am to meet a couple of customers up at the Quiraing to show them the beauty of this part of the island. We had a nice walk, and though the weather was against us some good photographs were taken. Little did I know that from where we stood, overlooking the sleepy village of Staffin, the dark waters hid an unfolding drama. As I drove home, looking forward to some breakfast and a cup of coffee my phone rang (unusual in itself due to my poor signal). My colleague Niki was at the other end sounding distressed asking where I was. In a tumble of rushed syllables she explained that there were pilot whales stranded on Brogaig beach. In an instant I was back in the car racing to the other side of the island mind spinning. In my head I had some mental picture of a couple of whales that needed pushing back into the water.

As it turned out 21 pilot whales had stranded on the beach overnight. 18 of them were re-floated back into the water before the tide started to go back out but to everyone's despair 10 of those subsequently re-stranded on Staffin Island just offshore. I arrived to help take care of a whale still alive at the first stranding site; a female in obvious pain and distress, and to make the situation worse, in complicated labour. For over an hour I sat with her, keeping her wet and trying to keep her calm but it was obvious there was little that we could do. Eventually a local gamekeeper arrived, rifle slung over his shoulder. We all knew what had to be done. She seemed to sense the change in mood, gaining more energy as though to avoid the fate that awaited her. We retreated to a safe distance and with a muffled 'thump' and a flick of the tail it was over. I knew I shouldn't have watched, but I couldn't look away. I'm no stranger to the killing of animals, and have shot myself but this was different. It felt worse.                                                      

Wet towels helped to keep the whales cool and stop the skin drying out (credit: Andy Kulesza)

Wet towels helped to keep the whales cool and stop the skin drying out (credit: Andy Kulesza)

One of the volunteers helps to keep these whales upright - he was sat there for over 4 hours (credit: Andy Kulesza)!

One of the volunteers helps to keep these whales upright - he was sat there for over 4 hours (credit: Andy Kulesza)!

3 of the rescue team holding one of the whales upright in the water for hours so she wouldn't drown after losing feeling in her right side from being on the rocks for so long (credit: Andy Kulesza).

3 of the rescue team holding one of the whales upright in the water for hours so she wouldn't drown after losing feeling in her right side from being on the rocks for so long (credit: Andy Kulesza).

This female really struggled to stay upright once she was re floated, however 2 of the other whales noticed this and swam over to her, swam either side of her to stop her listing to one side and drowning. Absolutely amazing (credit: Andy Kulesza).

This female really struggled to stay upright once she was re floated, however 2 of the other whales noticed this and swam over to her, swam either side of her to stop her listing to one side and drowning. Absolutely amazing (credit: Andy Kulesza).

The day was only just beginning for most people but it had been a long morning already. Supplies, equipment and volunteers were moved round to Staffin pier where the challenge of getting everything out to the Island to save the rest of whales commenced. I got kitted up in full drysuit gear, ready to head over and do what ever it took. But as I waited on the boat I remembered, I had customers waiting for me take them out later that afternoon. I couldn't risk getting stranded on the island myself, I'm a professional now. As I stood on the deck looking over the water to the island I realised I had to stay on the mainland - an utter feeling of helplessness and despair rolled over me, made even worse by the fact that I knew how much they needed help and extra hands. I helped where I could, organising supplies and helping the British Divers with information but eventually I had to leave. I arrived back at my house, drained, exhausted and emotionally spent. I'd already been up for 14 hours and hadn't even eaten anything yet. Duty called and I headed back out to another beautiful part of the island, though my thoughts remained far away with those whales at Staffin.

Out of this nightmare emerged some good news. Through the dedication and hard work of over 50 volunteers 6 whales were re-floated back into the water and saved. Despite this news when I heard the next day, I couldn't help but feel horrible. Not only because I couldn't help as much as I wanted, but at the simple loss of such amazing animals. I later watched a video of two whales helping another that had been re-floated, it was obviously in pain but the two others swam either side, keeping it afloat and swimming straight. This display of affection and companionship is deeply touching. I'm not one to anthropomorphise, at all, but you only have to look one of these whales in their deep, swirling brown eyes to get a glimpse of their intelligence and understanding of the world.

The level at which this event affected me on a personal level surprised me, I'm not one who is upset easily and I have seen my fair share of awful things. There are images that I would rather forget but it's something that I think will stay with me for a long time. I'd like to finish by showing a poem written by my colleague Niki who spent all day out helping the whales - I'm not very good at summing up my feelings but this beautiful piece does it well. Thanks must go again to all those who helped out, there are too many to name but it was amazing to see so many people turn out. Hopefully my next blog with be a happier one.

Comment