THE East Neuk coastline between Anstruther and Pittenweem became the scene of a major marine rescue mission on Sunday.
A total of 26 pilot whales were the victims of a mass stranding at the foot of the steep cliffs below the Coastal Path near Pittenweem.
Thirteen of the animals had died by the time rescue services arrived, so efforts focused on saving as many of the remaining mammals as possible.
Teams of experts on land and in the water spent several hours trying to keep the whales alive and then luring the survivors back out to sea, as high tide approached.
Coastguard and lifeboat personnel joined members of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) charity team, while fire and rescue, police and SSPCA members were also involved.
A crowd of onlookers gathered along the clifftop coastal path and some provided food, drinks, blankets and windbreaks.
It was thought, when the alarm was first raised around 7am, that the animals were dolphins.
But they were soon confirmed as pilot whales, mostly around 20 feet long, although some in the group were young calves.
The still-living animals were initially given first aid by the charity volunteers and their condition was assessed by vets.
Teams of volunteer medics from the charity were mobilised, with specialist rescue pontoons being moved to the location from across Scotland, Newcastle and Cumbria.
By mid-morning, reports came in of another 24 pilot whales in the shallows, three miles along the coast at Cellardyke.
BDMLR medics also observed these animals, in case they too became stranded.
However, the rising tides indicated they were in less danger, and they swam away with the high tide around 4.30pm.
Three of the whales which survived the initial beaching died naturally, while the other 10 were refloated by rescuers and BDMLR volunteers.
At first, two turned back into the harbour and the rest were waiting at the harbour entrance.
However, by the early evening, all 10 had left, said a spokesman.
“The two that turned back re-stranded but volunteers were able to get them straight back into the water,” he added .
“One was in difficulty and listing to one side, but the whales from the main pod swam beside it, physically keeping it upright until it could right itself.
“Once it was balanced and able to swim without support, the pod all swam strongly out towards open water.”
On Monday, Fife Council began an operation to winch the whale carcasses up the cliff face into specially-lined skips, before disposing of them.
COASTLINE VIGIL CONTINUED AS SURVIVORS RETURN TO SEA
ON Monday morning, rescuers and observers continued to check the shoreline and harbour areas, in the hope that the refloated whales were safely on their way.
They were also watching to see if any of the rescued mammals re-beached themselves.
Sadly, a report emerged that one from the pod had become marooned and died at Port Leith, near Edinburgh.
The previous day, 10 surviving whales had headed successfully towards the sea again after being kept alive by vets from BDMLR.
It was hoped they would join up with a group of whales further along the coast.
Another 24 mammals, thought to be from the same pod, had been seen near Cellardyke harbour but apparently swam off safely at high tide.
A BDMLR spokesman said: “It is hoped they will turn north soon to return to the deeper water but observers along the southern coast of the Forth are on alert if they are seen again.”
Patrols were under way at sea, while volunteers walked along the coastline to check none had become stranded again.
Coastguard teams from Leven and St Andrews, Anstruther lifeboat and Fife Police assisted the operation.
Vets also hoped to perform post-mortem examinations on some of the dead animals, in a bid to find out what may have caused the incident.
On Monday, around 10 pilot whales were spotted close to shore at Port Leith.
The spokesman said: “It is likely this was the pod of rescued whales from Sunday. If this is the case, then the animals headed south west rather than moving out into the North Sea and heading north, as hoped.”
One of them later stranded just outside the port and died naturally, while the others turned and moved out of sight.
“It is hoped again they will head out to deep sea and north,” said the spokesman, adding: “BDMLR would like to thank all who have helped on this difficult rescue and, once again, is grateful for the support and understanding shown by all.”
ILLNESS AMONG WHALE PACK A POSSIBLE THEORY
EARLY speculation on Sunday’s mass beaching suggested illness may be among the causes, along with the whales’ habit of travelling in packs.
Experts suspected one or more of the pod of whales may have become ill or disorientated and the others had followed it into shallow waters.
The BDMLR said there were “strong family bonds” among long-finned pilot whales – which meant the species was prone to mass strandings.
“The whole pod may follow one animal that is ill or confused or in danger themselves,” explained a spokesman.
Pilot whales also tended to live in social groups in the open ocean, occasionally coming nearer to the shore to feed.
Sea mammal researchers are also investigating how the whales communicate – and possible human influences in strandings.