DUBAI // When a large mammal washes up on shore, people must know what they are doing when they dive in to help it.
Rescuing whales, dolphins and dugongs is a risky and painstaking process. That's why a team of marine mammal experts from the UK spent last weekend teaching local environmental enthusiasts how to do it the right way.
"The biggest problem is that people think if it comes from the water it is a fish," mammal expert Stephen Marsh told an audience during one of the weekend lectures. "But mammals need to breathe, so their airways need to be kept open. If you don't know this, even with the best intentions, things can go badly wrong."
The British Divers Marine Life Rescue visit was part of an effort by the Emirates Natural History Group to build a network that will care for marine mammals in the region.
Keith Taylor, deputy chairman of the history group, organised two courses on Friday in Abu Dhabi and on Saturday in Dubai.
"There are a lot of people who spend time by the sea - divers, fishermen, beachcombers and natural history buffs - so we thought it would be a good idea to teach people how to care for the mammals of the sea," he said. "It wasn't in response to a perceived need for rescuing mammals, so much as when we got people together we realised there was such a need, and now we are working on building up a network of concerned people."
Fifty people took the courses over the weekend, including divers, environmentalists, representatives of the country's aquariums, schoolteachers and wildlife experts.
Mr Marsh and Richard Ilderton, from the UK, provided the lectures and gave practical sessions about the basics of marine species identification. They also informed audiences about first aid for whales, dolphins and dugongs. Mr Marsh will also speak tonight at Abu Dhabi Men's College.
Among the weekend demonstrations were the best way to attempt to lift and move a beached creature. For the practical sessions, the participants used inflatable models of sperm whales and common dolphins to simulate the recovery process. The plastic models were filled with water and air to give a realistic impression of the weight and size of the actual mammals.
Laurence Vanneyre, 31, a project manager with the Emirates Marine Environmental Group, said she finds stranded sea mammals at least every other month. The course equipped her with vital knowledge, she said.
"It is an exceptional circumstance for us to receive this kind of training," she said. "It is very specialised, and for us it is essential.
"Sadly, most of the time we find marine mammals, they are dead or dying, but even in this case I can now at least assess what was the cause of the death and try to prevent it happening again."
Nessrine al Zahlawi, 26, a conservation officer with Emirates Wildlife Society, said, "We are out there in the field all the time, so we need to know what to do if we find a stranded animal. Some of the things we learnt are simple but they can make all the difference. I think everyone in the UAE should do the course."
The main equipment used for rescuing the mammals was a pair of inflatable tubes called a pontoon. Mr Ilderton said that without these, the chance of saving a stranded mammal is slim - and he urged the UAE to invest in them.
"You have little time to act when a mammal becomes beached," he said. One pontoon system costs around Dh20,000, but, he said, it would radically alter the chances of survival for any beached mammal.
"Currently, the survival rate is pretty much zero," he said. "With one of these, it could potentially be 100 per cent if the animal is fit enough to go back in the water.
"Plus it would be great for the UAE to set an example in the region. Many people in the UK assume people don't care about marine life in the Middle East, and now I have been here I can see that is completely untrue. I think it is important to show the rest of the world this."
Mr Taylor said he is uncertain how the effort will progress in the UAE, but interest in developing proper local rescue techniques is still growing.
"We are thinking of inviting the British divers back to train trainers, so we can create a self-sufficient programme."