That time I rescued
a Life-Sized Plastic Whale
Context: What the hell Marine Mammal Medic training is (no I’m not a vet, and no we didn’t learn how to do CPR on a dolphin)
Part 1: Yey, this is going to be the best thing ever, I can’t wait for this course
Part 2: This is a terrible idea, why did I enrol on this course
Part 3: Oh shit, I’m the only clueless person on this course
Part 4: The moral of the story
Warning: Not for readers of a sensitive disposition
Most of this blog post is cheerful, and (I hope) funny, and of course self-deprecating. But, as anyone who’s watched the last 10 minutes of an Attenborough documentary can tell you, wildlife welfare is an emotive subject. There are NO horrible pictures on this page. There are a couple of tear-jerking descriptions.
Context: What the hell Marine Mammal Medic training is
(No I’m not a vet, and no we didn’t learn how to do CPR on a dolphin)
On 1st May, I completed Marine Mammal Medic training, run by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue Charity.
A couple of days before I completed the online theory.
The practical section was made up of three exercises completed on a beach. No medical intervention is involved.
It’s about assessing, and assisting stranded seals, porpoises, dolphins and whales.
It was freezing.
I had to go into the water.
It was so cold.
Yey, this is going to be the best thing ever, I can’t wait for this course
When The Sons and I amble along our favourite stretch of beach, we sometimes see a seal or two. It feels like they play with us. Popping their heads up to say hello, then swimming underwater in the same direction we’re walking in, then popping up all over again and looking right at us.
Spotting one of these fellas is one of my greatest joys.
A few years ago, as we arrived at the beach I spotted a seal on the sand, lying at a funny angle. I told The Sons to stay further up the beach. I wish I hadn’t gone to look either. It was a seal. A decapitated seal. He looked to have been killed by entanglement with marine litter. I turned to Google to find out what I was supposed to do, and found the website for the BDMLR.
I loved the idea of training to be a volunteer so I could go on call-outs to stranded seals.
But with two home-educated kids and a business to look after, I didn’t feel like I could take on anything else.
Actually, what I really felt was that I wasn’t allowed to take on anything else, something that was for me, when I was already struggling to copy with the balls I was juggling already.
And then we entered the Covid-years and I forgot about it.
As we emerged from the many lockdowns, the BDMLR started promoting their training days, and I spotted one that was only 90 minutes from home - so I registered.
This is a terrible idea, why did I enrol on this course
At no point, during the multiple years I’d considered taking this training, had I given any thought at all as to what helping a stranded seal would really be like.
Maybe, a little bit, I had imagined snuggling a cute cuddly fluff ball, taking a quick selfie of me looking radiant, while the grateful seal gazed lovingly into my eyes.
Maybe, I thought the video training (completed online a few days before the practical day) would be like Top Trumps of marine mammals with adorable footage of them frolicking in British coastal waters.
I was wrong.
It was two hours of brutal facts about why marine mammals strand and what that looks like.
Infections. Entanglement wounds. Bites from other animals. Dog attacks (after stranding). Unimaginably hideous mouth ulceration.
And, most importantly: Seals do NOT want to be cuddled.
They are not cute adorable puppy-like sea creatures.
They have very sharp teeth.
They do not want to be snuggled or stroked.
And they are prepared to bite your face/arm/leg to make their feelings known.
Realising that hugs were not going to be a key part of my volunteering experience, I began to doubt the wisdom of my decision to complete the training.
I didn’t want to go on the list of volunteers because I don’t have time to be getting called out to marine mammal emergencies - I am a very busy person with lots to do. And I don’t like to be cold. Or wet. Or bitten.
At the exact same time, I was also worried that doing the training was pointless because I’d never get called out, and this whole episode was going to be deeply embarrassing as people ask me over and over again ‘rescued any seals lately’ and I’d have to confess that I still hadn’t been on a call-out.
(Side note - isn’t it amazing how my brain can whisper two equally unhelpful, but completely opposite doubts at the SAME time!)
But, I’d paid for the course. I’d told my family and friends I was doing it. I’d feel like a bit of a dick if I backed out.
Oh shit, I’m the only clueless person on this course
At this point, I feel compelled to point out that the information page for the course had stated three things:
- You do NOT need to have any diving experience to complete this training - as we’d only be going up to shoulder-depth in the water.
- Bring a wet or dry suit because you will be getting in the water and it will be cold.
- You do NOT need to have any animal care experience
Still, I worried that everyone attending would already be much better with animals and/or more comfortable in the water (I sometimes dip my toes in the sea, but that’s about it).
I arrived with just a few minutes to go before the start time, headed over to the car park payment machine, and watched a young man climb into a (very expensive) dry suit (fully clothed, you get to wear your clothes under these suits, I wasn’t inappropriately gawping at someone who was semi-naked).
‘Are you here for the Marine Mammal Medic course?’ I pointlessly asked him (of course he was).
‘Yes. They want us suited up now because we’re going straight into the water’ - he helpfully replied.
I went back to my car, wrestled myself into the shorty wetsuit I had borrowed, and joined up with the rest of the class (about 20 of us in total).
We had time to kill while the dummy dolphin and whale were filled with water (to make them a lifelike weight), so we chatted amongst ourselves.
The first person I spoke to was wildlife warden - her actual full time job was already looking after wildlife.
The next one - a veterinary nurse.
The guy I’d met in the car park - a professional diver (yeah, that’s a thing).
His mate, who was also enjoying the cosy warmth of a dry sit - also a professional diver.
Surely I can’t be the only totally clueless random member of the public here.
The next person - she’s a vet.
The one after that - also a vet.
Another guy pipes up - ‘me too, I’m a vet’ - of course you bloody are.
As they swapped stories of marine mammal patients, discussing drug names I couldn’t pronounce, remember and certainly can’t write down, I stayed very very quiet.
I have never felt more metaphorically out of my depth.
During the exercises though, we were all levelled.
There was no medicine. And no real animals to treat.
It was practical work, like how to slide a flotation mat under a whale, how to attach the flotation pontoons, and safely use the gas cylinders to inflate them.
And besides two smug (but friendly) bastards in their dry suits, we were all equally wet and freezing after refloating the dolphin and whale.
In the afternoon we moved on to seal-wrestling - throwing a towel over a dummy seal and lifting it into a bag (for weighing or transportation).
The moral of the story
I am so glad I did this.
I wasn’t keen on driving that far on my own, or getting into the cold water - but I did both, and neither was a big deal in the end.
It was scary spending all day surrounded by strangers, many of whom had a common background I wasn’t a part of - but I still got stuck in, participated and didn’t shrink back too much.
And I’m so happy I’ve had the opportunity to be a complete beginner at something, so I can remember what it’s like to be the learner, not the teacher.