Scottish rescuers attempt to herd whales away from coast ahead of military exercise

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Rescuers are concerned the northern bottlenose whales will be distressed by the noise from next week’s NATO exercise

LONDON — It’s not quite a simple as herding sheep.

A flotilla of boats has gathered in a loch in northwest Scotland on Thursday to help herd a group of lost northern bottlenose whales and direct them back to sea ahead of military exercises in the region next week.

“It’s a first for this species,” said David Devoy, a volunteer with the charity British Divers Marine Life Rescue.

The region has attracted pilot whales, porpoises and other cetaceans in the past. But rescuers and the general public were surprised when two bottlenose whales — which prefer much deeper bodies of water — were first spotted about a month ago near Loch Long, Devoy said.

Since then as many as five have been seen swimming along the shallow coastal inlets.

The rescue group said there are concerns that noise from an upcoming military exercise in the area for members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will distress the animals.

The 11-day exercise set to begin Monday will see 6,000 personnel from 11 NATO member countries training with 81 aircraft, 28 ships and two submarines, Britain’s Ministry of Defence has said.

In addition to the impact of the exercise, rescuers have been worried the animals have already been struggling to get enough to eat.

“They have started to show signs of deterioration,” Devoy said. “Their body shape is starting to change, so that’s another reason to get them out of the loch.”

Police from Faslane watch one of the three Northern Bottlenose whales swimming near Garelochhead, Argyll and Bute, Scotland on Tuesday.Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images
It’s unclear why the whales swam into the loch. Devoy said it’s possible they followed a food source into the area or had their echolocation disoriented by the geography of the area or other noise.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence was helping with herding three of the whales that remained in the area on Thursday, Devoy said, along with the rescue group and local residents who volunteered their boats.

“What we’re going to do is create a noise behind the whales — not to distress them but to distract them and move them further down the loch,” Devoy said.

They’ll keep repeating the process until the whales make it out to open water, he said.