Decade after whale deaths, Joanna Lumley demands action from UK Government

Actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley has said she is “disappointed” by the Government’s lack of progress in dealing with old wartime explosives at sea, almost a decade on from the death of 19 whales.

The Absolutely Fabulous star spoke out at the same time as a diver recalled the incident in 2011 in which 39 pilot whales became stranded at Kyle of Durness, in the north of Scotland, a day after three explosions at nearby Cape Wrath.

The disorientated creatures were spotted in the shallow waters, and while rescuers managed to get some of the pod back out to sea, 19 of them died after becoming stranded.

Lumley told how the mammals had died in “traumatic conditions” after being “washed up on the beaches”.

Actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley raised the issue at a meeting with Environment Secretary George Eustice (Ian West/PA)
Actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley raised the issue at a meeting with Environment Secretary George Eustice (Ian West/PA)

She added: “With most horrific mass strandings of this kind, it is quite difficult to know the cause. But in this instance, a government report found that, munitions disposal operations conducted in the vicinity of the Kyle of Durness the day before and during the mass stranding event (MSE) was the only external event with the potential to cause the MSE.”

Lumley raised the issue at a meeting with UK Environment Secretary George Eustice, complaining that the “treacle-like morass of inter-Government department bureaucracy” was holding up action.

The actress, who is a spokeswoman for the Stop Sea Blasts campaign, is calling for an end to high order unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearances at sea.

She stated: “It seems crazy to me that we are still using World War Two techniques to clear World War Two bombs when our modern era has given us modern techniques that cost the same and are enormously more kind to the environment and sea life.”

Lumley continued: “My heart goes out to the volunteers who were part of the rescue effort on that awful day and are now speaking out so bravely about their experiences.

“Ten years on, it is frankly shocking and disappointing how little progress has been made to deal with underwater ordnance clearance.

“Despite a positive meeting with the Secretary of State and his no doubt good intentions I have to confess that I am disappointed that the Government appears to be trapped in the treacle-like morass of inter-Government department bureaucracy rather than just cracking on with what to most people looks like a common-sense solution.

“They appear to be saying that there won’t be any real progress until 2022 which means more harm is likely to be inflicted on more of our sea creatures.”

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Her comments came as Jamie Dyer, a rescue diver at the Kyle of Durness incident 10 years ago,told how whales of different ages from part of a pod became stranded.

He recalled: “We had all facets of this pod here, older males and females, sub-adults, an unweaned calf. Whales were blowing sand through blowholes which quickly turns to internal bleeding, which then automatically rules out the chance of a refloat.

“This, along with the unweaned calf, was one of the most heart-breaking rescues I have been involved in as we couldn’t locate the mother so it was not viable to refloat.”

He told how those trying to help the stranded creatures had “very limited resources, limited manpower and too many animals weighing several tonnes on a dangerous sandbar with an incoming tide”.

Mr Dyer said of that day: “Hard decisions had to be made.”

SNP MP John Nicolson backed calls for action, saying: “Exploding bombs kill whales and other marine mammals. The mass stranding and multiple deaths in the Kyle of Durness show how much needless carnage the bombs can cause.

“We know other safer methods of disarming World War bombs are possible. So there is no excuse not to make sea mammal life and the environment a priority.”

A spokesman for the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We absolutely recognise the impact that underwater noise from clearing unexploded ordnance can have on vulnerable marine species and we are actively exploring the use of alternative methods.

“Environment Secretary George Eustice was pleased to meet Joanna Lumley and the StopSeaBlasts Campaign to discuss how we can work together to reduce the impact that clearing unexploded ordnance can have on the marine environment.

“We are working at pace on this issue and the very first at-sea trials of alternative techniques will take place later this summer.”