Frequently Asked Questions about Strandings and Rescue

Why is rescuing a whale or dolphin quickly critical?

A live whale or dolphin beached on the shore is almost always in danger of its life. Whales and dolphins are helpless on land and usually die within a few hours or days if not appropriately attended to.

Are there different types of stranding?

Strandings can be divided into several different categories:

Single Strandings

This is where live (or freshly-dead individuals) are probably found on the shore because they are old, sick, injured and/or disorientated. Dead individuals washing ashore could be the result of a natural death or, perhaps, were drowned in nets (bodies sometime carry the characteristic marks of nets or even have pieces of rope or netting attached).

Multiple Strandings

Live (or freshly-dead) individuals of the same species coming ashore in a group are usually the type of species that have a “lead animal” and live in very tight social groups. Pilot whales are a good example. Usually when they strand it appears that either a lead individual has made a navigational mistake, or one individual has become sick or wounded and led the rest of its pod onto the shore.

If species other than whales and dolphins are also involved, for example fish or marine invertebrates, or if many different species come ashore together, an acute event such as a chemical spill or explosion may be to blame.

Why do they strand?

We still have a lot to learn about whales and dolphins and why they become stranded. It maybe that the individual is old, sick, or injured. Sometimes the animals may seek to help a sick or injured individual and become stranded themselves as a result.

Whales and dolphins can also be deliberately driven ashore in a group, as in the case of the cruel pilot whale hunt in the Faroe Islands.

Disease can also cause animals of the same species to come ashore.

If groups of animals of different species strand together, this might be due to some form of major disturbance out to sea affecting a wide area and driving animals ahead of it to then strand. This could be as a result of underwater noise (high powered military sonar, seismic surveys for oil and gas deposits using noise ‘guns’) and seemed to be the case in the Canary Islands a few years ago when a stranding of beaked whales of several species coincided with naval manoeuvres offshore.

Dead whale and dolphin bodies coming ashore in unusual numbers - either as one species or more – can often be due to entanglement in fishing nets or gear (known as "bycatch").

Navigational errors can cause a whale or dolphin to strand. Some types of shore and some particular coastlines are more prone to strandings than others. Shallow, sloping shores made of soft sediments may confuse the animals and the echolocation they use to find their way around.

One theory to explain some strandings is that they may be navigating using the earth’s magnetic field. Crystals of magnetite - which react to a weak magnetic field - have been detected in the brains and skulls of some whales and dolphins and a magnetic “sense” could be an important navigational aid, especially in the deep oceans. An analysis of strandings around the UK has found that live strandings occur more often on those unusual shores where lines of equal magnetic force meet the coastline perpendicularly. In other words, the dolphins or whales are disoriented by these strange occurrences and follow them ashore.

What happens after they strand?

It is important that live animals are responded to quickly and in the right way. In many cases, they may be in distress and too badly injured or too ill for recovery. Rescuers need, therefore, to be prepared for the worst, as some animals may need to be put to sleep.

It is also important that dead bodies, wherever possible, are subjected to a full post-mortem. Stranded animals, both dead and alive, can give important indications of the state of the population offshore.

Who to contact in the event of a stranding?

England & Wales

If you find a LIVE stranded or injured whale, dolphin or porpoise on the beach or in the shallows, you must act quickly. The appropriate emergency numbers to call in such an event and which can be used 24 hours a day are:

1. 01825 765 546 (BDMLR - British Divers Marine Life Rescue)


2. 08705 555 999 (RSPCA - Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)

Please try to give as accurate a location and description of the stranded animal as possible.

DEAD stranded cetaceans and seals (in any condition) can also be reported, to allow the bodies to be examined to try to determine causes of death and collect other important information. If possible, secure the carcass above the high water mark, and take as accurate information possible about the location and description of the animal.

Then you can call the UK Strandings Hotline (freephone number) on 0800 652 0333 or visit


The appropriate emergency numbers to call and which can be used 24 hours a day are:

1. 01825 765 546 (BDMLR - British Divers Marine Life Rescue)


2. 08707 377 722 (SSPCA - Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Hotline)

If the animal is DEAD then contact the Scottish Strandings Co-ordinator at the Scottish Agricultural College on: 01463 243030 (or 01463 791915 outside of office hours).

Northern Ireland & the Republic of Ireland

The appropriate emergency numbers to call and which can be used 24 hours a day are:

Northern Ireland - 08 0232 381251

Republic of Ireland – 021 904197 or 021 904053

If you find a live stranded seal contact the Irish Seal Sanctuary on:
01 8354370 or mobile 087 2333406


If you are concerned about an animal, please call your local stranding hotline.