British Divers Marine Life Rescue

19th March 2011 (following AGM)

It is always a lot to ask of a speaker to provide a presentation straight after an AGM, so the 45 people who attended on 19th March at Gweek Village Hall are particularly grateful to Dave Jarvis for agreeing to. He certainly gave us a very informative talk.

BDMLR is a fairly new charity, set up in 1988 by a group of divers who were concerned at their observations of the phocine distemper virus in Britain’s wild common seal populations. At the time, divers reported sick seals to the RSPCA.

Recognising their unusually close encounters with marine mammals, and with many divers having an obvious concern for environmental issues, BDMLR was born. It now forms part of an international network of similar organisations. Remaining true to its roots, virtually all funding raised goes straight towards buying new equipment or on training and virtually all activities are carried out by volunteers – there are only three paid staff members. Dave stressed that you don’t need to be a diver to be able to play a full role with BDMLR.

Dave then spent some time describing the details of BDMLR activity in each year from 2004. That year saw 31 call outs, including to nine cetaceans and 22 seals. Three profile-raising events and three medic-training events were held. Unusual species involved in 2004 were a minke whale and a harp seal, both extremely unusual in Cornish waters.

Photo by Colin Speedy
Photo by Colin Speedy

During 2005 call outs more than doubled to 67. These included a basking shark and two turtles. BDMLR was featured on a Radio 4 show – ‘How to rescue a dolphin’ – surely a pretty surreal event to conceive and execute through the medium of radio?!

2006 saw 75 call outs. One resulted in very high media coverage during the summer, when some CWT divers including Joana Doyle encountered a basking shark trapped in a fishing net off Newlyn. The divers put all their skill and training into action and managed not only to successfully cut the shark free but gathered some fantastic film of the process. I expect many people can remember this on the TV news.

2008 was an incredibly busy year. Of 129 call outs, 31 occurred in January alone. The year saw six turtles being rescued. Most of these have arrived from the Gulf of Mexico / Caribbean and go into a cold shock – like a coma – on reaching our shores. If found in time and given the right care, these can recover well enough to be repatriated back to their warmer climes.

Without doubt one of the highest profile BDMLR actions took place in June of 2008, when there was an unexplained mass stranding of common dolphins in various creeks of the Fal Estuary. The graphic TV images showed us bodies lined up on the shore – 26 died in total (24 prior to anyone discovering them) – but what we didn’t see so clearly was the excellent ‘pied piper’ work done by BDMLR volunteers, who managed to herd more than 50 animals into deeper water, and safety. This was achieved by tying 2 stranded animals to a pontoon of rigid inflatable boats, then slowly heading down river. These 2 animals were clicking, and the volunteers were convinced they were encouraging their friends to join the procession. This occurrence clearly demonstrated the depth and capacity of BDMLR and its ability to respond at a moment’s notice, involving as it did more than 50 medics.

Even closer to home, on 30th November 2008 volunteers were called to Frenchman’s Creek, where a mother and calf common dolphin had becoming stranded on the mud as the tide fell. Both animals were in good condition and so, given the right care, would be likely to survive. Dave said that dolphins can probably survive for 24 hours out of water if kept wet. Throughout the afternoon quite a number of people assisted in keeping the animals doused in water while a vet gave them fluids. As the tide would not be returning for some time – by when it would be dark – it was decided to lift the animals onto some inflatable lilos, carry them bodily up the access track – no mean feat – place them into a car and drive them to Porthallow at a very sedate speed, while all the while somebody lay beside them to ensure they stayed upright. A major risk facing large stranded marine animals is that they lose the essential body-support from the surrounding sea, and succumb to internal injuries caused by the weight of their own bodies Anyway, our story has a happy ending, as both mother and calf were successfully returned to the sea and the volunteers no doubt returned home tired but happy.

Dave reckons that about 4% of our Cornish seal population is affected to some degree by entanglements with fishing nets. Unfortunately it is not always possible to release animals, depending upon how serious the injuries are.

It is very clear that BDMLR is going from strength to strength. Dave has pondered over the increasing number of call outs each year and suspects it is partly a function of people being more in-tune with wildlife due to more TV programmes and partly due to Cornwall developing a more year-round tourist season, meaning that people are out on the cliffs more often. It is not possible to state that more animals are being trapped or injured now than before as a baseline does not really exist.

In response to a question at the end, Dave said he is convinced that dolphins at least know they are being helped – he has had frequent close eye contact to form this view! This must give the very dedicated volunteers a huge reward and sense of purpose when standing, kneeling or even lying in cold, wet conditions for hours on end.

Dave gave us a real insight into the hands-on nature of this organisation and the volunteers certainly deserve our support and respect. Anyone wanting to get involved or to find out more can look at the website

© Helford Voluntary Marine Conservation Area