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The 'whale whisperer'

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The 'whale whisperer' thumbnailThe remarkable photograph of John Lowry going to the rescue of the minke whale by Stiofan O’Connor.

DESERVED praise has been given to local man John Lowry after he single-handedly freed a Minke whale just off the coast of Newcastle beach beside the Rock Pool.

Hailed as a "whale whisperer" by locals, John, a retired coastguard of three years from the Ballagh Road area of Newcastle, assisted the 20ft whale last Tuesday (3 October) which had been struggling for a few hours to reach deeper water as the tide had gone out.

The rescued whale was a common minke whale which are slim in shape and have a pointed 'dolphin-like' head.

The whale had been stuck on a sandbank close to Newcastle Promenade and a large crowd had gathered to witness John, along with two other men, wade into the water to attempt rescuing the whale.

One of these men, Stiofan O'Connor was also responsible for the incredible photographs which were taken of the rescue.

Stiofan, originally from Scotland, lives at the harbour area of Newcastle. Stiofan had just finished work at 6pm and was sitting down to relax until he looked out his front window at the shore below and noticed "50-60 people" on the beach.

Stiofan said: "For a moment I wondered what was going on and then I saw it, a beached whale, splashing about trying to desperately free itself. I was so surprised at the amount of people and the fact that no one was helping. I knew I had to help so I threw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, grabbed my camera and ran outside." When Stiofan reached the beach, John, who Stiofan met while volunteering for the RNLI, was already in his dry suit, in the water with the whale signalling for help.

"I took a few pictures and fortunately I was able to hand my Nikon D750 camera to one of my friends before I waded in.

I turned to see another man in a wet suit beside me and we waded out together. By the time we were waist deep and about 50m from the water's edge John had already managed to set the minke whale free." "The whale was estimated to be about seven metres but I think it was much more.

"John said it had a belly full of fish, so I am guessing it got stranded while feeding. Reflecting on it after, I did remember seeing a few plumes of water in the bay earlier that day. Usually this is down to gannets diving but I remember it was much bigger and most likely was the whale breathing." Stiofan is very pleased with the positive feedback he has received from all corners of the world.

"I got a few interesting pictures and a short video. I posted some of the pictures to the local Newcastle County Down Facebook page I run, and to my surprise within 24 hours the post had been viewed by nearly 500,000 people! "I've been told it's a very small percentage of beached whales that actually survive so I'm really pleased with the happy outcome. After the rescue, when John got to the roadside, the police were waiting to talk to him so they could call off the coast guard."

Speaking to The Outlook about the amazing rescue John added that he felt "so privileged" to get up so close to the whale.

"People forget that these amazing creatures are extremely intelligent," John said.

"The whale had been thrashing around, obviously in distress, and as soon as I got close it stopped. The whale became completely calm and it sensed that I was there to help."

This is not the first time John has rescued a whale. Seven years ago, when working as a station officer at South Down Coastguard, John was involved in saving a beached pilot whale just off Tyrella Beach.

"I had absolutely no fear whatsoever, because I had successfully been involved in a rescue like this before, I didn't even give it a second thought. I received a phone-call from my friend John Rooney who informed me that the whale was stuck in shallow water.

"Luckily I had my dry suit in the van and I was able to head into the water. The beach was surrounded by a lot of panicked faces including small children and I could see blood in the water so I thought it could potentially be very serious." John said that it is common for whales to get mixed up with their navigation and when they get breached they would continue to swim into shore.

"Once I approached the whale it completely calmed down and I started to coax the whale's head in the right direction. I could see from the amount of blood in the water that the whale had cut itself along the rocks and as the tide was coming in I was concerned that the whale could steer off in the wrong direction so I pushed its head out to sea hoping it would continue in the right direction. The whale was very buoyant so it was by no means a physically tough rescue." It took John approximately 10 to 15 minutes to assist the whale back out to deeper waters.

"As soon as the whale began swimming in the right direction I felt completely relieved and just in absolute awe at this wonderful and beautiful creature. As I headed back I kept turning just to check that the whale kept going out to sea and that he got away safely.

It was just remarkable and thankfully a great outcome. The panicked faces along the seafront were no more and I noticed the children were just mesmerised at the sight which they had witnessed," added John.

John said that the response has been fantastic and he hopes that the rescue will attract people to the South Down coast.

"I feel lucky to have been in the photographs alongside the minke whale. Three weeks ago there was a whale watching day at Newcastle harbour and this time of the year it is likely that basking sharks, whales, sea otters and porpoises are all out there along our coast, so close to us.

"It definitely was one of those moments I will remember forever and something I feel incredibly privileged to have been a part of."

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