Essex coast pilot whales showing signs of distress

Pilot whales off the Essex coast at Brightlingsea Image copyright Stacey Belbin
Image caption Experts are concerned the whales will become trapped in the "maze" of sand banks

Concerns are mounting for a pod of pilot whales that have swum into shallow waters off the Essex coast as they show increased signs of distress.

The 40-strong group was first seen a mile offshore between Jaywick and Brightlingsea on Tuesday.

Police and other boats are now trying to "herd" the whales from the "maze" of "shallow channels" in the Blackwater Estuary to deeper waters.

Marine experts have urged members of the public to keep their distance.

"The pod has split up into two groups at the moment so it's quite hard to herd," said Emma Webb, from British Divers Marine Life Rescue.

"There's one pod in a deeper channel and we want to try and get the rest to join them, but in places it is extremely shallow at no more than 6ft (1.8m) deep."

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Media captionThe British Divers Marine Life Rescue and Essex Police's marine unit are trying to herd the whales back out to deeper water

Pilot whales are closely related to dolphins and are normally found in waters near the Hebrides.

"They should be in the deep ocean waters around the north-west of Scotland, but here we have shallows and sandbank channels - it's like a maze where they can find themselves trapped," said Charlie Oliver, of Essex Wildlife Trust.

Volunteer medics are on stand-by so experts can act as quickly as possible should the whales become stranded, said the trust.

Image copyright Stacey Belbin
Image caption An ebb tide has caused water levels to drop in the Blackwater Estuary
Image copyright Stacey Belbin
Image caption Members of the public are urged to stay away from the whales so not to add to their stress

If the whales are relocated, their exact location will be kept a secret as "large groups of people could easily exacerbate the whales' trauma".

"These are intelligent animals that are, unfortunately, stressed and disorientated," said a spokesman.

It is believed some of the whales in the pod are young.

The pod was initially spotted off the Norfolk and Suffolk coast last week, and near Kent at the weekend.

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