Anglesey Sea Zoo is part of a rescue network for stranded or sick marine animals, including dolphins, whales, porpoises, seals, turtles and seabirds. The network consists of people and organisations who can respond to a stranding, and is being built up around the British Isles by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR). The extra skills held by some of the staff at Anglesey Sea Zoo allow them to also handle seabirds and turtles and to advise on their rescue.
Please note that while we can help coordinate the rescue together with BDMLR, we are NOT a rescue centre and may not have the facilities available to hold injured marine mammals or birds.
If you find a stranded animal, please call BDMLR or the RSPCA first - details below!
If you find a stranded animal
Many stranded animals stand a chance of recovery with the right expert care, so calling for professional help quickly is essential if you find a stranded animal.
If you find a marine animal that needs help, call:
- Seals: RSPCA Hotline (England and Wales) 0300 1234 999
- Whales and dolphins: BDMLR Rescue hotline 01825 765546 during office hours, 07787 433412 out of office hours
Please note that stranded seals may simply need some time to rest and gather their strength before returning to the sea! In most cases the best thing to do is to leave them alone and undisturbed unless the animal is injured or unresponsive.
When you call, please give as many details as possible about the exact position of the animal so that the rescue team can find it as quickly as possible upon arrival. This includes the exact stretch of beach, distance from the tide line, any nearby landmarks and the nearest car park or access point. You will also be asked questions about the animal to establish exactly what species it is.
Whales, dolphins, porpoises and turtles
Until help arrives, the following can be done:
- Keep the animal wet and shaded from sun if possible, preferably by covering it in a wet sheet or blanket (keep cetaceans' blowhole clear!) It is particularly helpful to cover the eyes as this calms the animal.
- DO NOT attempt to move the animal unless it is absolutely necessary.
- Turn the animal onto its belly (if not already) taking care not to damage the flippers.
- DO NOT put water down the blowhole of cetaceans or cover or block the blowhole.
- DO NOT attempt to put the animal back in the water without expert advice. This is particularly important for turtles.
- Try to keep the area quiet and keep dogs and large numbers of people away.
Seals and seabirds
- If possible, observe and follow the animal from a safe distance away. Often, these animals will appear to be sick or stranded but will then recover when left alone, or if they are youngsters their parent will appear.
- If the animal appears not to be moving after several minutes of observation, approach with caution and see if the animal is responsive.
- If the animal remains unresponsive, gently cover it with a dry sheet or thin blanket to keep it out of the sun but DO NOT smother it. A gentle cover over the eyes will calm the animal but if the animal shakes it off, do not try to replace it, retire to a safe distance.
- DO NOT attempt to touch the animal or go too close to it if it appears stressed. This could result in damage to you and the animal!
- Try to keep the area quiet and keep dogs and large numbers of people away.
If a stranded marine animal is found on a beach but is already dead, it can be reported to the following organisations:
Causes for strandings
- Cetaceans, seals and birds are competing for ever-dwindling stocks of mackerel and herring, and often get caught up in fishing nets. The transparent mono-filament nets are lethal because they hold the animal underwater, and they will quickly drown.
- An increase in boat traffic for recreational purposes means that disturbance or injury through collision with boats is another risk for marine animals.
- Chemicals from pollutants can become concentrated in fish and then can cause nervous system damage and other medical problems in the animals that eat them. Many pollutants such as plastics, chemicals and sewage are also extremely harmful.
- Plastic bags are often mistaken for jellyfish or squid and, if swallowed, can block up the stomach, killing the animal – this is a common cause of death in seals, turtles and cetaceans alike.
- Underwater noise from shipping traffic, seismic surveys, sonar, drilling or underwater explosions can cause permanent hearing damage to cetaceans relying on echolocation, impairing the animals' ability to sense their environment - sudden acoustic pressure can even cause severe ear and brain damage and death.
- Stormy weather may be enough to exhaust an animal and cause it to wash up - especially seals are occasionally found on beaches after storms.
Dolphins, whales and porpoises
Dolphins, whales and porpoises all belong to a group of marine mammals known as cetaceans. These all have streamlined bodies and extremely strong tails for efficient propulsion through the water. They breathe air (like other mammals) through a blow hole in the top of their heads, and hold their breath when diving by closing it. These mammals can dive for long periods of time and to very large depths.
Cetaceans use a series of whistles and clicks as echolocation to communicate with other members of their group, and also to navigate and find prey. They are all extremely intelligent and adapted to live in large open stretches of sea in contact with many others. Anglesey Sea Zoo does not keep such creatures in captivity because no aquarium can do justice to their natural habitat.
About twelve species of cetaceans can be seen around the coast of Britain. The harbour porpoise and the bottlenose dolphin are the most commonly spotted around Wales, with the most regular sightings in Cardigan Bay. Whales are seen far less often because of their tendency to stay further off-shore, and to dive deeper for longer periods.
About thirty-five cetaceans strand each year on the coastlines of Britain. The majority tends to be larger whales that have made navigational errors and regularly end up on the shores of northern Scotland. Success in getting these creatures back into the water depends on their reason for stranding. The most common reasons for stranding are illness and navigational mistakes, with mass strandings usually due to a group following one individual to shore. If the animals are healthy, then the prognosis is usually good, particularly if they are not stranded for long.
Seals are large marine mammals, and like all mammals, they breathe air. They are capable of holding their breath for minutes at a time while they dive to catch food, such as fish and squid. Seals spend a lot of their time lying around on land, especially on rocky shores, although they have a thick coat of fur which keeps their bodies insulated whilst swimming in even the coldest of seas.
Two kinds of seals are found around the British coast - grey seals and harbour seals. The most common species locally on the North Wales coast is the grey seal. Half of the world's population of grey seals are found on and around British coasts, and numbers here have doubled since 1960.
Seals breed in large colonies, usually on rocky shores, but they can be found anywhere along the coastline. Seal pups have a fluffy coat, and grey seal pups are born with white fluff, while harbour seals are brown. Mothers will leave their pups alone on the shore for relatively long periods of time while they swim off to forage for food. Therefore it is important not to assume that a pup left alone on the shore has been abandoned as this is often not the case, and interference with the pup may prevent its mother from returning.
All seals have large, strong canine teeth which they use to catch fish. It is important that they are handled by trained people as their mouths also contain lots of bacteria, so seal bites can be very dangerous and require specialized medical treatment.
Seals are protected by the Conservation of Seals Act so it is illegal to commercially hunt seals or harm them, but individuals causing damage to fishing nets can legally be killed and some hunting for subsistence still occurs. The largest threat to seals is conflict with fisheries, as they can become entangled and drown in fishing nets, and in the UK, Canada and Norway, it is legal to shoot any seals that come near fisheries. They also suffer from damage from collisions with boat traffic. Recently, the arrival of phocine distemper virus (PDV) in the UK has had a dramatic effect on harbour seal populations, causing widespread sickness and death, for which there is currently no cure. Marine litter and debris can also be a cause of injury, either through entanglement or accidental ingestion when mistaken for food.
The most common turtle species in the UK is the native leatherback turtle, the largest species globally, which undergoes vast migrations to find its favourite food source, jellyfish. These animals can grow to 5m long and weigh more than half a tonne, and they are frequently seen offshore during the spring and summer months when the jellyfish blooms occur in British waters.
All turtle species globally are now threatened so every individual needs protection. Turtles face the same threats as other marine animals through the accidental ingestion of rubbish and debris and entanglement in fishing gear, but many have been greatly depleted in number in their native feeding and breeding ranges through hunting for meat and egg collection. Females are particularly vulnerable at their breeding sites as they emerge on the beach to dig a hole and lay their eggs and many populations have been exploited almost to extinction.
Although the leatherback turtle is native to British waters, rare species of exotic turtles which have been wind-blown off course are washed up on British shores, particularly in the winter months during periods of strong south westerly winds, along the west coast and Wales, and recently this has become a more common occurrence. For example, the Kemp’s ridley turtle, the rarest species in the world, has been found 35 times on British shores.
These exotic turtles literally go into shock when they hit the cold waters in the North Sea, so they may be very much alive even if they appear to be dead. They need specialist care and warm water temperatures to recover, and will certainly die if they are returned to the cold water, so it’s particularly important to seek help and not to return the animal to the sea, and also not to assume that the animal is dead even if it appears unresponsive. Several individuals have been successfully nursed back to health and recovered to their native, warmer waters for release.
The chances of saving a stranded turtle are greater the sooner assistance arrives, but often quite high. However, careful handling is essential in order to minimize negative effects on the animal.
There are many different kinds of seabirds around British shores, nesting often in huge numbers on rocky outcrops or islands, where their nests are safe from predators. All seabirds feed on fish or squid, which they catch by watching from above with their keen eyesight, and then diving down to catch them whilst holding their breath. Seabirds face many of the same threats as other marine animals, and are vulnerable to the accidental ingestion of debris and entanglement in fishing gear whilst inadvertently diving for fish which are already caught in a net or on a fishing line. Some very rare species of seabirds, such as albatrosses, are still being depleted in large numbers globally and may face extinction due to long-line fishing near their breeding grounds.
Birds are also vulnerable to oil spills and other forms of marine pollution. The feathers of birds are kept well oiled naturally via special glands in their skin which keep the feathers in perfect waterproof condition through dispersal in the feathers during preening. Pollutants like oil and petrol, which adhere to the feathers, remove this natural waterproofing and cause the birds to drown, as their feathers become wet and heavy, preventing them from lifting themselves out of the water. Pollutants such as heavy metals and pesticides accumulate over time in the bodies of many birds and cause long term fertility problems, such as an increase in the failure of eggs and chicks.
Many seabirds are now competing with fishermen for fish stocks. Some bird species now risk death through starvation, or are unable to successfully rear their chicks, because local fish stocks are too low, and they may end up stranded on beaches as a result.
With the correct handling and treatment, sick birds can recover sufficiently for release back into the wild. However, the handling of birds is a tricky business and should not be attempted by those who are not experienced, as many birds are very strong and can cause a lot of damage when stressed, both to themselves and to the person handling them.