TWO dolphins have had a lucky escape from a potentially fatal incident on the shores of Strangford Lough. A female common dolphin and her calf became stranded in thick mud close to Castle Espie near Comber last Thursday. The mother and juvenile had to be helped back into the water by a veterinarian and medics from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue. Coastguard teams from Portaferry and Bangor ensured the safety of the rescuers while the operation was underway. And while the larger dolphin caught the tide, aiding her return to deep water with the help of the rescue team, her calf struggled to follow her and considerable efforts had to be made to enable it to rejoin its mum in deeper water. A reserve warden at Castle Espie Wetland Centre, Anna Ashdown raised the alarm after spotting the stranded dolphins on the lough.

They evidently got caught on the lough bed when the tide went out. Anna put out a call to the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and the coastguard, who all arrived to assess the marine mammals’ situation along with a vet. One of those who answered the call was BDMLR volunteer, Ruby Free, one of the members of the Rescue Adventure First Aid Training who assisted in the rescue. She explained that the vet, who was the first rescuer on the scene, covered the stranded dolphins with wet blankets to prevent them drying out. “She did a really good job of that, and then the rest of us turned up and we were just trying to keep the dolphins wet until basically the tide came in a little further, because by that stage it was still hundreds of meters out,” said Ruby.

About an hour later, the BDMLR team, including Helen Beattie, Josh Anderson and Ingrid Houwers, attempted to re-float the dolphins in the rising water. “The way you do that is you get a tarpaulin. You have to dig a little bit under the dolphins’ bodies, put the tarpaulin underneath, really delicately roll them onto it before you slide them out into the water,” she said. She stressed however, that similar rescues of wild animals should never be attempted by members of the public Ruby said they attempted different methods before the dolphins were out of harm’s way. “We made sure that the calf was positioned in front of the mum, so the mum would follow behind and encourage it out, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” said Ruby. “When we let go of the mother and calf the mum had a lot more strength and the calf, unfortunately, was still being pushed back onto the sand bank because of the strength of that tide.” She said at one point, the calf was ‘really struggling’ in the shallow water and was soon showing signs of fatigue. She said that if the team had ‘just allowed it to carry on fighting the tide relentlessly, it might have actually been a lot worse for the little dolphin’. “So we managed to get hold of the calf again and actually walked it out into much, much deeper water, and held it for about 20 minutes before it could get enough energy to try again.”

When the volunteers felt the calf was strong enough to swim, they released it again and it was soon reunited in the lough with its mother. “It was a brilliant, brilliant sight to see,” she reported. Ruby praised her fellow rescuers ‘muscle power’ and described it as ‘an incredible group effort’ and praised her fellow rescuers for their quick thinking and “muscle power”. “It took a few of us to hold dolphins each, and then you have the coastguard team who were looking after us looking after the dolphins,” she said. “And then you have the guys at Castle Espie that actually made the initial call that made all of this happen in the first place.” “Please keep your eyes peeled around the waters of Strangford Lough. If you see these dolphins in trouble again, or any marine life in distress please call BDMLR on 01825 765546,” she added. A Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) spokesman said: “It is always sad to see marine wildlife becoming stranded and the volunteers from BDMLR did an incredible job to successfully refloat the common dolphins in Strangford Lough. “Daera would like to thank all of the volunteers who assisted in this incident and the whole network of volunteers who are on standby and ready to respond at any time. The dolphins’ fortunate escape was in contrast to the fate of a large whale beached at Ballymacormick Point between Bangor and Groomsport which was discovered already dead.