THE tragic death of 55 dead pilot whales involved in a mass stranding incident on an Isle of Lewis beach was a horrifying sight – and it comes amid a sharp rise in reported incidents.

A mass stranding is defined as when two or more marine animals are found beached in the same area.

These events are not uncommon, but the scale of this incident was notable.

Over the past decade, the number of marine animals becoming stranded on Scottish shores has more than doubled.

Experts believe that the rise is due to an increase in reporting and public awareness rather than an increase in strandings.

The Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) records stranding incidents on Scottish beaches – 2018 saw the highest number of reported cases of strandings at 932 reports, which it attributed to an increase in public awareness.

Mass strandings events can occur for several reasons, such as due to earthquakes, confused navigation, an acoustic source, unusual tides and predators.

The exact cause of the stranding is still to be determined, with necropsy and sampling being conducted to that end.

The working theory is that a female got into difficulty during birth and tragically the rest of the pod followed due to their strong social bonds.

Pilot whales are incredibly loyal, with their name coming from a leader piloting the pod.

Climate change is having an impact on marine ecosystems with warming waters impacting seasonal food sources and migration.

Dr Andrew Kitchener, principal curator of vertebrate at National Museums Scotland, said: “We have seen this change say over the last 25, 30 years where we've tended to see more warm water species of whale and dolphin turning up in, in Britain and also in Scotland, more specifically.”

Last month, a severe marine heatwave was declared on waters in the West of Scotland, with temperatures five degrees warmer than the average for June.

Marine biologist Dr Fiona Gell said: “We're putting increasing pressure on marine ecosystems from so many different directions with climate change and we are increasingly industrialising sea.

“It may come out that there isn't a direct human impact, but it just feels to me like a kind of real wake-up call that it's on such a big scale.”

When whales die naturally and sink to the deep ocean, they are part of a natural carbon cycle – an estimated 33 tons of carbon stored in their huge bodies is taken out of the atmosphere.

In the case of the pilot whales on the Isle of Lewis, there does not currently appear to be a connection to the climate crisis or any human involvement.

The public is encouraged to report live strandings to British Divers Marine Life Rescue on 01825 765546 or Scottish SPCA Animal Helpline on 03000999999. Dead animals should be reported to SMASS: Report a stranding – SMASS (