Review: Marine Mammal Medic Course

Yesterday I finally attended a course that’s been on my to-do list for quite a while – The British Diver’s Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) Marine Mammal Medic Course.

(Photos from British Diver’s Marine Life Rescue)

The course is a morning of theory lectures on cetaceans and seals, followed by a practical afternoon ‘saving’ fake whales, dolphins and seals at the beach. Once successfully completed, you officially become a Marine Mammal Medic, one of over 3,500 volunteers around the UK who may get a callout if there is a stranding or injured animal in your area.

It costs £90, which covers the course, your membership to the charity for a year (£25/year subsequently), and third party insurance for when you’re on a rescue. £90 for a day isn’t exactly ‘cheap’ but I don’t think it’s unreasonable either. I’d urge you not to be put off, especially if you live somewhere near a seal colony or where standings are more common (Scotland & Cornwall, I’m looking at you).

Before the course even started I was very impressed by the customer service from BDMLR, who I emailed a few weeks ago to see if they had any upcoming courses near me in the pipeline. At the time I was told to just keep an eye on the site, but when a course was arranged at Burnham-on-Sea, just 45 minutes from Bristol, they sent me an email about it and I signed up the same day.

They then send a letter with the full details of location, timing and what to bring (wetsuit or drysuit, lunch).

The arrival time was 9am, for a 9.30 start. It was held at the BARB hovercraft rescue centre on the seafront at Burnham, which was a pretty cool venue and made me want to learn how to drive a hovercraft quite badly. Five guys from the BARB team were there attending the course, which I thought was pretty cool of them.

The morning was spent in 3 lectures.

  1. An introduction to BDMLR and the marine mammal species found in UK waters (30 cetaceans, 2 seals).
  2. Cetacean physiology and rescue.
  3. Seal physiology and rescue.

These were all long, but interesting and interspersed with stories from the instructors who had both been involved in marine mammal rescue for many years. There were five minute breaks between them with free tea, coffee and biscuits, and lunch after the last lecture.

While we were doing this, some other hard working volunteers were down the beach filling a fake pilot whale, common dolphin, and seal pup with water. We suited up and were split into three groups.

My group was on the pilot whale first. Large cetaceans are refloated (when possible) using specialist equipment called a pontoon. We had to roll a mat under the whale – not easy – then clip inflatable cylinders to either side. These are blown up using diving cylinders and allow you to float the whale out to deeper water where you then ‘rock’ it to reestablish equilibrium (after hours on a beach, a whale is not going to know which way is up, down, backwards or forwards). That’s the basics, but there’s a lot more to it. Among other things, the whole operation has to be carried out without letting any water get into the blowhole, or the whale will drown. This was an added stress while we were trying to refloat our ‘whale’ as the tide was coming in at quite a rate!

We then moved onto the common dolphin. Here we were going through more of the assessment and first aid we’d been taught before learning how to refloat a dolphin using a tarpaulin. The same technique as getting a pontoon mat under a whale, then lifted out into the sea with more of the rocking and blowhole protection. It was really interesting talking to the woman who did this lesson with us. She’s a very active medic down in Cornwall and her first ever rescue was the Fal and Helston River common dolphin mass stranding in 2008. The most common cause of this is thought to have been naval sonar exercises, which I could write ten posts on (and might).

Finally we learned ‘seal jumping’ (no one seems to know why it is called this). Seals in distress are more likely to be captured, because we have seal rehabilitation facilities around the UK (this is never done for cetaceans in Britain, and has very low success rates around the world). This is obviously dangerous – seals are cute and I’ve dived with them in the Farne Islands, giving them a little scratch and letting them bite my fins and mouth at my gloves. This might be unwise, but in water they are unquestionably the boss and will be out of sight in under a second if they don’t want to be near you. A stressed, potentially ill or injured seal on land is an extraordinarily dangerous animal. One of the BDMLR instructors hit the nail on the head – “the UK’s largest land-breeding predator” with a bite that could crush your bones (even the pups).

For this reason, I’ll leave your own instruction on jumping seals for when you attend the course yourself. I don’t want to be held responsible for any seal bites.

At the end of the day we received a Marine Mammal Handbook, with all we had learned and more, a medic card, some car stickers and a fabric patch (you know you’re jealous) .

I had a super fun day and am really excited to get more involved with BDMLR. I don’t know how much this will be possible while I’m in Bristol and carless but if I do decide to go to Plymouth for a postgraduate degree it might be easier. They also have an Advanced Medic course which is more of a book of skills to work through at your own pace. I’d definitely like to start that one day but might wait until I’m more experienced.

I think everything I learned about seals yesterday is a great headstart on my upcoming 14 weeks at Zeehondencentrum Pieterburen, a large seal rescue and rehabilitation centre in the Netherlands. And that goes both ways – on my return I hope I’ll be more useful to BDMLR.

Overall it was a brilliant day. I learned a lot and was really inspired by everyone there, both instructors, volunteers and other trainees from a variety of backgrounds. If you take this course you will end the day wanting to scour the coastlines saving all the seals and whales, and should probably remind yourself not to wish strandings and injuries upon these animals.

A final thought on public outreach:

BDMLR do great work and they are the experts on marine mammal rescue in the UK. So this leads to the question – how many people have heard of them? I was driven there by a friend, a very active UK diver, potentially one of the more likely people to come across a marine mammal in distress, and he hadn’t. Lots of their calls come via the fire service, coastguard, etc. At least someone is being called! But it seems to me that all regular UK water-users ought to know to phone BDMLR in such an event and potentially some very basic information on what to do. As a diver I have the DCI Diver Helplines saved to my phone and so do lots of people I know. Surely having the BDMLR line should be equally common practice.

I’ve been thinking for the past 12 hours or so what would be a good way to address this lack of knowledge. Would credit-card sized leaflets with the numbers and information be helpful, or just be thrown away? Is there more that could be done at popular beach spots, or surf and dive shops? I’m not sure. If there were an easy answer it would be done. If anyone has ideas do let me know.

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