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News / Whales saved from mass stranding

A commotion as the pod of pilot whales start to head back out to sea. Photo Ivan Hawick

A POD of more than 30 pilot whales was herded out of a Shetland voe amidst fears there was about to be a mass cetacean stranding.

The local wildlife network started buzzing around 10.30am on Monday with news a large pod of pilot whales had been swimming around 500 metres off Firths Voe, near Mossbank.

However concerns arose when the pod drifted into the voe and huddled together in a close pack just 50 metres from a sand bank.

Paul Harvey, of the Shetland Biological Records Centre, said the creatures were exhibiting some quite strange behaviour. “One animal almost seemed to be trying to lead them inshore and it’s tempting to anthropomorphise and say there was a battle of wills going on there,” he said.

“One was trying to take the rest inshore and some of them were thinking this isn’t a very good idea.”

Harvey said pilot whales often mass strand and there are various theories about why they do so.

“One of them is that maybe lead animals have a navigation problem and they are not used to navigating inshore, because they are a much more pelagic species.

“Another theory is that one of the animals is sick and they are coming ashore to aid the sick animal.”

While onlookers, many sporting substantial camera lenses, were watching the drama unfold, local resident Liz Holmes contacted BP at the Sullom Voe oil terminal to ask them to assist.

BP sent two boats, including a fast response craft, around the northern tip of Shetland’s mainland and at around 2pm they neatly circled past the whales and then drove them back out to sea.

“It’s a bit unfortunate for people that maybe wanted to come and see them, but it’s the best thing for the whales,” Harvey said. “They do mass strand so it’s always a concern when they come inshore.

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“Fortunately they chose the right island group didn’t they, because if they had been a couple of hundred miles up the road they would all have been hacked to pieces by now.

“Hopefully the animals will move back offshore, but the risk is that there is an animal with a problem and we could be exporting the problem somewhere else.

“But I think it’s the sensible thing to do and the animals have moved off.”

Firths Voe is where subsea pipelines bring oil ashore from the North Sea to the oil terminal and where a new gas exporting pipeline has recently been laid.

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