Stephanie Cope: Notes from a windy isle

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It’s a uniquely awful position, being beset by whales.

I didn’t have these enigmatic creatures pinned as troublemakers. But, like iron filings to a magnet, Tiree Ranger Service attracts unconventional problems. And the problems caused by cetaceans are proportionate to their size.

In three years, I have been called to take tissue samples from (and otherwise ‘do something about’) 23 deceased porpoises, dolphins and whales.

Porpoises and dolphins don’t swell much. However, in the elastic throat of my first Minke, a chilling protuberance nestled. The island’s RSPB officer John was busy photographing the carcass and jotting down external measurements. This whale was a casualty of bycatch. Its tail stock had been severed to remove the flukes: an action likely required to free the already-drowned animal from active fishing gear.

With my knife poised above the taut skin (and eyes firmly fixed on the bulge), I wished that John had done the tissue sampling course too. Not least because he lacks a sense of smell, and things were a bit high for my taste.

I gulped; pressing the blade into the flesh. An ominous and foetid fizzing started, like the slow uncapping of a cola bottle. Noxious brown fluid bubbled out under the gaseous pressure – dribbling down the side of the whale and onto my wellington boots. Turning to grimace at John, I was more than a little irritated to see him nodding anxious encouragement from circa 15-meters away. In a man who smells nothing, I had hoped for a bit more brass.

Most dearly-departed sea creatures have the good grace to fester on some anonymous stretch of coast. To these considerate beasts, I am indebted. Those with the temerity to arrive at a more public location are announced by a frenzied dinging of text messages; an inbox-melting surge of typed correspondence; an energetic bleeping of the office telephone; and crazily wafting arms sticking out of moving vehicles.

Collecting tissue samples was one thing. But this whale had chosen a final resting place almost equidistant between two of Tiree’s more vigorous community members. It was a closely patrolled beach and the whale did not have leave to remain.

I surveyed it bleakly. My new friend weighed around three tonnes and stank. I’d done my best to make myself scarce – but, in the darkest recesses of my heart, I knew the whale was destined to become my problem. Back at the office, colleagues peeped over their laptops with horrified resignation as I wrapped small cubes of whale blubber in kitchen foil and prodded them sulkily into sample pots.

Twenty-four hours later, the whale was holding court. It had become something of an attraction now: curious streams of children were trickling down from the nearby school. My hopes for the big overnight tide had been dashed. But how to get rid of it? The carcass continued to swell and Tiree’s youths unwittingly courted higher-level crowd participation. Calls had to be made.

In the event, the whale split the scene with a certain style; being popped, dropped onto a flatbed truck, and driven in stately fashion to the site of its committal. On the way, it enjoyed a brief sojourn outside the local shop, as the whale chauffeur called in for a bacon roll. Some alarm was caused when, stepping out of the store with my own lunch, I found myself unexpectedly confronted by my nemesis. Still more alarm followed as the whale advanced through a set of chicanes; the slight swerving motion causing it to loll and flop in an utterly terrifying fashion. No, I wasn’t sorry to see it go. My step was lighter as I closed the office door behind me.

Hours passed before the next doom-laden email arrived. A second whale was incoming: still offshore, and bobbing unhappily along the coast of West Hynish. Lesions on its flukes suggested entanglement. I skipped through the pictures; confident in the knowledge that, if ever there was a desirable location for a festering whale to deposit itself, the ruggedly remote Hynish coastline fitted the bill. No further action required.

I heard nothing more for three days. That was how long it took whale number two to voyage halfway around the circumference of Tiree, in a grotesque (and frankly insensitive) final act: to wash up within meters of its predecessor.

The telephone started to ring.

 

caption: Minke Whales are particularly prone to entanglement. The fishing community works closely with researchers to reduce interactions between marine life and fishing gear.