Swimmer’s guide to marine life rescue

What to do if you encounter injured or stranded marine life

Loggerhead turtle by Michal B.

Seals, porpoises, dolphins, whales, turtles…  and the occasional walrus. A marine life care and emergency guide for swimmers by swimmers.

In the UK, there have been several recent cases of well-meaning members of the public trying to help a marine animal that appears stranded or struggling, only to actually cause the creature harm. In February 2023, a live stranded common dolphin was returned to the sea three times by people who believed they were helping. It sadly died before marine medics could get there. Later that month, a stranded loggerhead turtle was refloated before medics arrived, which for this species can be fatal.

While outdoor swimmers are highly unlikely to encounter situations like these when in the water, many swimmers live near the coast or visit it frequently, and so are more likely to become aware of an emergency situation. We talked to two outdoor swimmers who are also trained volunteer marine medics, to find out the need-to-know guide to marine animal rescue, as well as what their work involves.

Louise Round is an advanced marine medic with British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), lead medic at the organisation’s Seal Hospital in Cornwall and member of the YaYas swimming group in North Devon. Katie Tunn is a swimmer, snorkler and medic/coordinator with BDMLR based on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. Medics are trained to deal with a range of scenarios involving whales, dolphins, seals and other creatures including turtles, but their respective locations means they deal with different cases: for Louise, it’s largely grey seals but for Katie, the biodiversity of the West Coast of Scotland means anything goes – though seal pups, dolphins and porpoises are common call-outs.  

Whichever end of the country, there’s one thing in common: an increase in rescue situations due to human activity. “The biggest issue we’re dealing with at the moment is the growing amount of human-animal interactions,” says Katie. “Social media is awash with videos of people ‘helping’ creatures by putting them back in the sea and folk are copying these. Whilst there are some situations where this ends well, for marine mammals – and some turtles – this can be deadly. We’ve had instances where sick or injured animals have been returned to the sea multiple times by members of the public and the stress and handling has caused the creature to die. 

“We’re getting a lot more cases of people trying to ‘help’ seal pups which ultimately leads to them being abandoned by the mothers, so we have to step in and rehab them. Human activity is often the reason for dolphin and porpoise stranding too, although many are actually the victims of nasty attacks by larger cetaceans.”

Social media is awash with videos of people ‘helping’ creatures by putting them back in the sea and folk are copying these. For marine mammals – and some turtles – this can be deadly.

A seal pup being assessed. Sue Jackson/BDMLR

Seal pup season varies around the UK – from late August in some areas to as late as January in others. The reason that people perceive seal pups to need assistance is that they need to rest on land to conserve energy – but a passerby may think this means they are stranded. Pupping season can include other common scenarios.

“A typical call from a member of the public to our helpline would be saying they’ve seen a grey seal pup on a beach where there aren’t usually seals and there are a lot of dogs around,” says seal specialist Louise. “In North Devon this year, I’ve had a couple of young seal pups who’d clearly just been weaned and were reluctant to take their first solo swim without their mums – these just required monitoring to keep dogs and people away, until they finally felt brave enough to swim off. Other calls have resulted in me having to uplift weaned seal pups for being underweight or injured and then transporting them into rescue.”

A pilot whale being refloated near Staffin. Photo by Sam Nicolson.

Ninety per cent of calls to the BDMLR hotline are for seals. Once a call is registered, the co-ordinator in the relevant region sends a text to all local medics. Once at a callout, information is gathered about the animal (including its location, a health assessment and taking photos), the situation (including accessibility, high or low tide, and weather conditions) and this is fed back to the incident coordinator, so a decision can be made as to what happens next. If a rescue is decided, these are often long processes, since they depend on tides, weather and accessibility.

“For dolphins, for example, there are only two choices: to attempt a refloat or to euthanise,” explains Louise. “A proper assessment needs to be carried out before a decision to refloat the animal is made. There is a correct procedure for this to give them the best possible chance of survival and medics will also know how to keep the marine mammal comfortable and safe in the meantime. Fortunately, there are more options for seals.” 

In Scotland, Katie also deals with calls about pilot whales (“notoriously bad at getting themselves in trouble,” she says) and, rarely, mass strandings. Monitoring also forms part of the medics’ work, when animals are spotted off the coast of the UK who are not adapted to its conditions, such as turtles and walruses. So what’s the rule of thumb for anyone spotting either an animal in need or one that looks like it should be somewhere else?

“Whatever animal it is and whatever situation it’s in, give it plenty of space and call BDMLR to get an expert assessment of the situation,” says Katie. “Don’t attempt to rescue it yourself. Even if it’s something minor, like an animal behaving oddly in the water, we can monitor that to make sure that the outcome is the best one possible. When you call in a situation, you’ll probably be put in charge of the scene until a medic turns up. Make sure no-one approaches or moves the animal, keep dogs on leads away from it and try to keep the area quiet and secure. You’re their security guard!”

Katie Tunn with a dead long-finned pilot whale at Loch Coruisk, Isle of Skye.

The recent cases of marine life welfare are not only indicative of a need for better awareness of how to respond to perceived emergency situations – they also raise deeper questions about the relationship between humans and the environment. The increased numbers of outdoor swimmers over the last few years has raised crucial questions about how to co-exist in the marine (and freshwater) environment – while swimming near a seal may feel like communing with nature, swimming away from it pays their world greater respect.

As swimmers and dippers, Louise and Katie are well-placed to advise. “Swimming around the west coast of the UK, my swimming group has often come across seals asleep on rocks, which is when my medic mode kicks in,” explains Louise. “I make the group move away quietly, so as not to disturb them and cause them to flee into the water and maybe hurt themselves in the process. We’ve had seals pop up in the water when we’ve been swimming and I’m always the one telling the others to remain calm and swim slowly and steadily away. I also, always, take my marine mammal medic kit (including seal bag) in the car with me.”

Another way swimmers can help marine mammal health is by litter picking with every trip to the coast.

“Each time my swimming group goes to the beach we make it part of our routine to always pick up any litter we see – especially plastics and ghost nets,” says Louise. “Ghost nets are particularly harmful for seals, as they’re inquisitive creatures who stick their noses into places they shouldn’t. Sadly, we’ve seen several examples of seals coming in with severe injuries caused by discarded fishing net tight around their necks, which digs into their flesh as they grow. Such injuries can also really compromise their internal organs and, often, lead to a painful death. 

“Dolphins, whales and turtles can often mistake plastic waste for prey and there are many examples of these creatures dying of starvation as their stomachs become filled with plastic. We can all do our bit to prevent this by picking up rubbish from our shorelines to protect our marine life – especially those of us who use the sea on a regular basis.”

  • The 24hr BDMLR Rescue Hotline is 01825 765 546 – save it in your phone contacts
  • Follow the BDMLR on Instagram. The organisation is always looking for new volunteers to train as medics, to find a course near you visit the website.
  • For more advice on seals see our Keeping Seals Safe feature
Beth Pearson