I was so proud to be a rescuer of this beautiful creature
PUBLISHED: 09:57 18 April 2018 | UPDATED: 09:57 18 April 2018
Carrie Carey of the RSPB on the dramatic rescue of a beautiful ocean dweller.
Two dark eyes gaze up at me, the usually upcurved mouth is pulled tight and breaths come quickly and laboured. I am looking down at a porpoise stranded on the mudflats at RSPB Snettisham reserve. She is frightened, exhausted and struggling with every breath to survive.
There was no lifeguard on duty when the outgoing tide stranded this small cetacean on the shingle bank at Snettisham and if it wasn’t for the quick thinking of concerned birdwatchers, the animal faced certain tragedy.
By a stroke of luck, the porpoise had been discovered by visitors to the reserve.
Initially they mistook it for a dustbin that had been discarded on the shingle beach. A flicker of movement caught their eye and they realised it was an animal stranded on the shoreline.
Philip James and his family had the insight to carefully move the porpoise onto the edges of the mudflats where they were able to keep the animal wet despite the outgoing tide.
“We felt that time was against us,” Phil said “so we rang the RSPB for help.”
Harbour porpoises are the only member of the porpoise family commonly found in UK waters. A mature adult will be between 1.5 and 2 metres in length, they have robust dark bodies and pale grey underbellies.
Unlike dolphins they lack a streamlined head and beak, their small rounded head is framed by a well-formed mouth and chin. They follow shoals of small fish and prefer shallow coastal areas, which doesn’t always work to their advantage.
Few things in the natural world are more tragic than cetacean strandings and yet they occur the world over. Despite decades of study, scientists are still struggling to understand the overriding cause.
Whales and dolphins are highly social animals and mass strandings may occur when healthy members of the pod follow a sick or injured animal into shallow water. Harbour porpoises tend to travel individually or in small groups so mass strandings are rare but individuals often beach - usually due to illness, injury or by coming too close to the shore and getting trapped between tides.
Unlike their dolphin cousins, porpoises are shy creatures only coming to the surface to breathe rather than to play. Their breath sounds are a strange mix of snuffling and snorting, hence the nickname ‘puffing pig of the sea’.
In the case of our stranded porpoise her breaths were very rapid and shallow, giving great cause for concern. Porpoises are incredibly sensitive to noise and other disturbance and can easily die from shock.
It was imperative to reduce the animal’s stress levels as quickly as we could.
Bystanders were tasked with scavenging for sticks so that we could dig a small channel around the porpoise.
Cetaceans are not designed to live out of water, their own body weight will crush internal organs without the buoyancy and weightlessness of the sea to hold them up. They also quickly overheat or conversely become hypothermic when out of water and are in danger of rapidly becoming dehydrated.
Phil and I worked in silence carefully removing mud from around and under the porpoise and filling the trench with sea water.
We didn’t converse much but it wasn’t an awkward silence as you might suppose. We were single-minded in our endeavour to do our best for the porpoise until professional help arrived.
In the meantime, other visitors took on the role of communications support contacting the RSPCA and the local Sea Life Centre. As the tide receded further and the task of keeping the trench filled became more difficult it was a welcome relief to see the cavalry arrive.
Thanks to the group of strangers who came together on that chilly spring morning to save the life of one animal, my faith in human nature has been restored. When we commit our time, energy and effort to a common goal without regard to individual differences or circumstance, then this is humanity at its best.
So whilst nature is generally having a hard time, I feel assured that when it comes to the crunch, it is possible to be work together to save and protect the wildlife we love.