British Divers Marine Life Rescue: Saving one seal at a time

By Zuzanna Dusza.

British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), set up in 1998, was initially a group of divers gathering together to respond to a common seal mass mortality event caused by the Phocine Distemper Virus epidemic in East Anglia. Since then, the organisation has participated in rescuing marine wildlife whether due to marine disasters such as the Napoli shipwreck in Dorset, extreme weather conditions or human disturbances.

BDMLR trains over 1000 volunteer Marine Mammal Medics each year and anyone can get involved in saving marine mammals in trouble! Ultimately, they rely on the eyes of the public to patrol UK beaches and report any animals in distress.

Grey seal pup by Zuzanna Dusza

BDMLR participate in the rescue of cetaceans, for example, dolphins and whales, but a key component of their work has been the rescue of seals across the UK. Last year for my dissertation project, I used their seal callout data in order to ascertain whether a change in Cornish weather patterns increased these stranding events. I am now excited to be able to tell you a little about the organisation and introduce Dan Jarvis who kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

In my interview with Dan, Welfare Development and Field Support Officer and Area Coordinator for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, we discuss the important work BDMLR carries out each day, the wider ecological significance of seals in the UK, an increase in seal strandings over recent years, what everyone can do to help, and what the future holds.

Can you tell everyone why what you do is so important?

British Divers Marine Life Rescue is the only national charity dedicated to rescuing marine mammals in the UK. We respond to over 2000 callouts per year using our network of trained volunteer “Marine Mammal Medics’ around the country. Marine mammals face many threats in the wild including direct human disturbance, climate change, entanglement, bycatch, hunting/whaling, pollutants such as plastic and chemical ingestion, habitat loss, overfishing and many more.

What do the seals you save mean to the wider UK ecosystem?

The UK is home to two native species-the common seal and the grey seal. Globally, the common seal is more abundant and widely distributed, however in the UK the population is smaller than that of the grey seal. Grey seals are actually one of the rarer seal species in the world with only around 350,000 individuals and they are found only in the North Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea, however the UK is a stronghold with around 34% of the world population found around its coastline.

Seal pup release and surfers at Porthtowan beach by Zuzanna Dusza

The UK has a special responsibility to help protect and conserve this species in particular given the significance of our favourable habitat and global population proportion that is found here. Our rescue work helps to counterbalance the many human-induced causes of death in these species.

Have you seen an increasing trend in callouts, and, if so, why do you think that is?

Callouts have been increasing significantly over the last few years by between 24-30% annually, and the reasons for this can be broken down into four categories:

  • Increasing awareness through advancing technology (smart phones for immediate looking up rescue contacts and advice), plus online and physical education efforts such as posters, signs, social media campaigns and so on.
  • Increasing populations of humans living at or near the coast, increasing coastal tourism, and increasing coastal activities such as kayaking, coasteering and paddle boarding leading to increased interactions with wildlife and potential for disturbance leading to more casualties, as well as higher potential for casualties to be found and reported.
  • Climate change fuelling more frequent and powerful storms during autumn and winter, mainly affecting grey seals during their pupping at this time of year. Potentially new population-level threats are now emerging in the last few years with significantly increased pup mortality and reduced pup production in extreme events have recently been documented in South West England and Wales.
  • Emerging disease in common seals with mouth infections in East England and South East Scotland has become very prevalent in young animals in the last few years, which has also led to increased callouts for casualties of this species.
Increase in total number of grey seal strandings between the years 2009-2013 and 2014-2018 in Cornwall and The Isles of Scilly.

What can the public do to help your cause and protect British seals?

People can help raising awareness of our wildlife and what to do or not to do around them to minimise disturbance, such as using the detailed code of conduct that can be found at www.cornwallmarinelifecode.org.uk, and advice on reporting stranded cetaceans or sick and injured seals at https://bdmlr.org.uk/what-to-do-if.

People can also help with reducing pollution, including at home by avoiding buying plastic packaged items, recycling more, and even litter picking when out on local walks to prevent it from getting into the environment and seas where it can entangle or be ingested by animals. There is also lots of advice online on how to reduce your impacts on climate change through reducing use of fossil fuels including vehicles, cleaner living and many other tips and hints on how to make small and simple changes to your daily life and routine to curb carbon emission and slow the rate of global warming and its ongoing effects around the world.

How do you see the future in terms of your work and the fate of the British seal population?

We are still at the early stages of understanding the effects of climate change on ecosystems, food webs and individual species. Certainly, evidence for geographic shifts in some populations is strongly suspected and being researched at present in the scientific community, but the direct impacts mentioned previously on pup production and pup mortality creating a new population-level threat is especially worrying when looking into a future when these extreme storm events are predicted to happen more often and more fiercely. The severe mouth infections seen in common seals over the last few years is also a new concern, particularly as many pups struggle to survive once it takes hold, even in rehabilitation. The cause of the infections is not yet known and subject to ongoing research as well.

Photo by Zuzanna Dusza

BDMLR will almost certainly continue to see increases in callout figures annually with the aforementioned four key factors that have mostly contributed to them already, and most of which are really out of our control. Therefore, we have to plan to robustly increase our numbers of volunteers over the next few years to ensure we can keep on top of the rise along with sufficient rescue equipment to deal with them and the fundraising effort to support all of this.

And finally, have you got a favourite rescue story or particularly memorable seal encounter?

I’m part of a small team of Medics who have developed a specific method of rescuing seals at one particular location through abseiling down a cliff. It is very difficult to carry these types of operations out as they require a number of criteria to be satisfied before launching such an effort, many of which depend on the seal itself – for example if there are others on the beach, how likely disturbance caused by us being heard or spotted would lead to them escaping into the sea, the tide, weather conditions, how soon it will be dark and so on. These operations can take quite some time as we have to move as stealthily as possible to avoid detection by the target seal, so there are high amounts of restrained adrenaline and tension, but also lots of silent communication amongst the team to help make them successful. Over the last fifteen years or so we have successfully carried out 31 out of 33 attempts – mostly for entangled seals. One such animal we had to wait five months to be able to rescue as although it was often around, it was usually in the water, close to it or hauled out on offshore rocks where we were unable to get it. The patience paid off in the end much to everyone’s relief after months of frustration watching and waiting for the right moment! These are highly specialised rescues that we have learned how to safely carry out ourselves using all the experience and knowledge we have learned along the way about how to do them most effectively; is it is something I am especially proud of leading.

Well thank you very much Dan! My hope is that by familiarising yourself with this organisation and the amazing work it does, you’ll become more aware of the wildlife around you, you’ll know what alarming signs to watch out for in a distressed animal, that you might wish to support BDMLR and similar organisations or maybe even become a Marine Mammal Medic yourself!

BDMLR certainly has my seal of approval!

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