On the clean golden sand of an Isle of Lewis beach, Mairi Robertson Carrey crouched low, so she was eye to eye with the dying creature beside her.

Next to it, was another. At its nose and at its tail, lay two more. Over her shoulder, in front of her and to her side, and all around on the fine sand, more lay dying.

Pastel-coloured wet sheets shrouded a few of the surviving pilot whales from one of the UK’s largest mass stranding events.

But, having spent hours trying desperately to save them, volunteers like Mairi, exhausted and overwhelmed by the terrible sight, accepted what was increasingly obvious. She looked into the eye of the whale and noticed an oily secretion that looked all the world like tears; nothing, she knew, could save them.

Time had been running out for the pod of long fin pilot whales since she'd receive a text asking if she could help at 8am that morning.

With the tide dragging the sea water they desperately needed even further away, Mairi, with her islander’s deep-rooted connection with nature, the sea and the gentle creatures who share that corner of the world, started to sing.

“Someone said that the human voice could be calming, and I had been talking to them, saying it was going to be alright,” she says.

“But after two or three hours, I had run out of words. I was starting to think it’s not going to be alright – I didn’t know if it was going to be all right.

“I started humming and singing some Gaelic song and thinking anyone who comes past will think this woman is mad, singing to these whales.

“But you just do whatever comes into your head in these situations. It seemed the right thing to do.”

Nearly half a year later, events remain so unbearably raw that Mairi, a volunteer with British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) who had completed her training just a few months earlier, still hasn’t been able to bring herself to revisit Traigh Mhor in North Tolsta.

“I have nightmares,” she says.

There are occasional flashbacks, an acute awareness that the island’s beautiful beaches can also be places of extreme horror, deep sadness and a profound desire to try to turn a brutal situation into something positive.

“It’s such a waste of these beautiful creatures,” she adds.

What caused the pod of 55 pilot whales to become stranded on the west coast beach, leaving all but one dead, seems as much a mystery now as it did on that blustery July day.


The Herald:

Rumours over what led the pod of 55 pilot whales to become stranded on the west coast beach, leaving all but one dead have rumbled ever since.

Questions have been raised about human activity – geophysical seabed survey work linked to offshore wind farm development was being carried out around the area at the time.

Such stranding incidents – albeit rarely on such a large scale - are not unique: just a few days after the Isle of Lewis incident, there was a mass stranding of 13 common dolphins on Skye.

At home and abroad, strandings leave their imprint on the volunteers who find themselves thrust into a scene of utter devastation: around the same time as islanders on Lewis were processing what they’d just seen, locals on Cheynes beach in south west Australia were waist deep in the aqua sea, doing their best to help a pod of nearly 100 pilot whales that had beached on the sparkling sands.

One spoke later of the heart wrenching squeaks of distressed baby pilot whales; the sound, she said, that would never leave her.

Mairi, meanwhile, can still feel the weird sensation of the ground beneath her feet reverberating as she tended to one whale, its body sending tremors deep into the sand that rippled right through her.

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And the thump to her own heart as vets administered the ear-splitting ‘coup de grace’ to the few surviving whales.

“These creatures should be in the sea,” adds Mairi. “To see them out of their natural environment lying on the beach… I felt like the world had gone off its axis.”

Dr Andrew Brownlow, director of the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme (SMASS), who was on Lewis at the time of the stranding, is trying to unpick what may have happened.

Reports of strandings are increasing, he says, and there are concerns more will happen: the SMASS online map of strandings shows hundreds of separate events across Scotland’s coastline.

“There’s a clear way year on year increase on strandings,” he says.

“It could be there are more animals out there, we know populations are recovering since we stopped killing them for whaling purposes.

“It could be that we are looking more,” he continues. “Everyone has mobile phones and are more aware that when finding something on beach it’s easy to report it and we have better data than we did.

“Thirdly it might be increased mortality, that is what we are curious to understand.

“It’s difficult tease these different things apart. We are trying to find what ways to do that.”


The Herald:

A grim video, posted on SMASS’s social media channels, shows the bloody aftermath of the Lewis incident as Dr Brownlow and his team – including Mairi who is also an SMASS volunteer – carried out essential work to remove samples from the dead whales.

Just one lone whale managed to return to the water, the thought of it alone without its family brings little comfort for those who were there that day. The remaining 54, including some which had to euthanised, were examined, measured and samples taken – a time critical task made more complicated by the remote location.

They have provided some answers: there were no wounds, no signs the pod had been hit by vessels or tangled in net or rope. Perhaps remarkably these days, there was no evidence that they had ingested plastic or other debris.

Their blubber was thick, they seemed healthy without significant diseases or parasites.

The primary cause of death was stranding: the whales had drowned.  

The question then is what drove the close-knit pod to the beach?

The SMASS investigation into the incident has been given the green light from Marine Scotland, and some funding has been released. With a report on the incident due in late March, Dr Brownlow is hoping data from a Marine Scotland hydrophone attached to buoy in the area at the time.

“We’ve been waiting for information from North Tolsta buoy which has not been released yet - we are wondering when they will let us know,” he adds. “It will show what sort of underwater noise at the time.

“But, the challenge is that it’s not just the presence of underwater noise. That noise has to be unusual in its duration, magnitude or duration.

“The tricky part is these waters are not quiet at any one point. It’s not simply a matter of finding that there were some things going on that surround the time and space of the stranding.

“We need to go back and forward through time to see if that particularly noise is unusual.

“Animals become habituated to noises,” he continues. “If working in a quiet library and gunshot goes off you will panic and run.

“If you are working at a firing range when it happens, it’s normal.

“There’s a degree of habituation we need to try to understand: not look two or three days either side of the strandings, but two or three months. That’s much more labour intensive.”

Also complicating the investigation is the multiple agencies and specialists required to unravel the mystery. Often parties involved are working on the Lewis incident around other tasks, in their spare time and when resources are available.

As work starts on dozens of offshore wind farms around Scotland’s coastline, bringing new levels of noise and disruption, figuring out if there is a human link – or not – to cetacean stranding incidents has fresh urgency. 

According to a Scottish Government spokesperson, it is still analysing the acoustic data. The results of the SMASS led investigation, however, is due to be published in late March.

While Northland Power, developers of the west of Lewis offshore wind farm Spiorad na Mara, which began offshore investigation surveys just days before the incident, have already confirmed their vessel, The Glomar Supporter, was in the area.

"We are confident that any equipment being used over the weekend has no impact upon known pilot whale auditory ranges and followed at all times the Joint Nature Conservation Committee guidance (2017)," it added.

Meanwhile, Dr Brownlow would like to see a more joined up, better funded system to tackle stranding events.

“The argument we would make is that we have some of the most unique and special waters in Europe and probably on the planet.

“We have a duty of care to future generations look after them, and to the current one to look after them in a way that can be sustainable for conservation and for the vast amount of economic livelihoods they support.

“The way to do that is better understand the pressures and better integrate the data we have.

“The pilot whale investigation is a good example where we have cases where trying to pull in data from a number of different sources and collaborate, to help understand what happened to these animals and is there a human link.”


The Herald: Post-mortem of stranded pilot whales on Lewis by Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS)


At home on the Isle of Harris, Mairi strives to find positives from a grim event.

A few weeks after the stranding, a local whale watch tour business offered volunteers from that day the chance to go on the water. At first, she hesitated, worried of what it might unleash.

When she did go, however, it was hugely therapeutic: “I needed to see these creatures that had been washed up, not on the beach, but in the water where they are meant to be.”

And she can now imagine herself returning to the beach which so far has repelled her, perhaps to help raise funds for British Divers Marine Life Rescue: discovering vital equipment was having to brought to Lewis from Oxfordshire that day, she says, only added to the stress.

Undaunted by the experience, next month she will spend time at a marine wildlife rescue centre learning new skills to help the next stranded creature.

“I think in some ways I’m still processing it,” she says. “I see little snapshots of the whole beach that day – maybe it was too much to take in at once.

“I think most other people felt the same because it was so totally unlike anything else. There’s a bond there. It devastated everyone.”