A CAMPAIGN has been launched to buy equipment to help volunteers rescue stranded whales.

A crowdfunding bid is aiming to purchase a whale rescue pontoon for the west coast.

The drive follows recent disturbing images of beached whales on Skye, nine of which died despite efforts to guide them back to sea.

The organisers are well on their way to the £4,000 target, with around £2,000 already committed within two days.

Twenty one long-finned pilot whales were stranded on the shore at Brogain Beach near Staffin in the north of Skye at the start of the month. Eighteen were refloated and sent back to sea but among the three dead whales was a pregnant female, which had to be euthanised after its calf died.

However later in the day, it also emerged that some of the refloated whales had beached on the nearby Staffin Island. By the time volunteers arrived, four were dead, and two more had to be put down to end their suffering.

In attendance was Skye and Wester Ross team of British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) which had only recently been put together.

They had a basic trailer of kit funded by local businesses such as Ullapool Harbour, High Life Highlands and even an animal loving local mechanic. But they were in desperate need of a rescue pontoon set. The BDMLR has one set in Wales seven in England and seven in Scotland. One is on Lewis, one in the south west, one in the north in Thurso, but the rest are all on the east coast.

Ullapool-based BDMLR area co-ordinator Noel Hawkins, said : "In an ideal world, we would have pontoons around our entire coastline and trained teams ready to respond in every village and town. Sadly, reality and costs mean that a huge coast such as the Highlands will always be short of people and equipment.

"We recently managed to train some people at Ullapool in how to assist in such an event, and four of the newly trained medics actually attended Staffin, and are looking to put on further training throughout the region. Sadly, one of the lessons learned on the day of the stranding was how ill prepared the Highlands are for such tragedies such as what took place."

He said many of the pontoons took hours to reach the rescue effort on Skye from their locations elsewhere in Scotland.

"Time is a critical factor when these animals come ashore and we hope to be able to avoid such delays again in the future by ensuring a pontoon is on hand to be mobilised for any location from Skye up to Cape Wrath and even by ferry out to the Hebrides."

He said the first pontoon probably would be based in Ullapool as that is where most volunteers had been trained.

The rescue pontoons works by getting a mat under the animal in distress and then attaching two tubes on either side that are inflated by compressed air. This allows the animal to held upright and in position where it damages itself the least until the tide can be used to work it out to sea for release.

Ideally multiple animals should be released at once so as to minimise individuals returning looking for family members.

"So the more pontoons the better. In our case we will be happy if we can get one," Mr Hawkins said.

The online campaign is seeking funding from international sources but the team hope that the Highlands reputation as a destination for wildlife and nature lovers will provide the inspiration for local residents and businesses to assist ensure that the total can be achieved locally.

"These animals, the sea and environment are attractions that provide work and incomes for so many up here, we hope that some of those very same people can spare a few pounds and allow us to do our best to look after the animals when they are in our waters," Mr Hawkins said.