Lydia Uddstrom on saving whales

Lydia Uddstrom is passionate about the marine kingdom. Currently living in Invercargill and working as a Dairy veterinarian at Vet4Farm Ltd she has always had a love of animals and whales and dolphins in particular. When Moko the friendly Mahia dolphin turned up she went straight to visit him. While there she met Kim Muncaster, CEO of Project Jonah, and the next thing Lydia knew she was happily attending a Project Jonah training day in Wellington. Three months after training as a Project Jonah Marine Mammal Medic she was called to her first whale stranding, which she describes as one of the most incredible experiences of her life.

 

How are you trained to become a marine mammal medic?

Marine mammal medics come from all walks of life and all the necessary training is given at the training days. The morning is spent in a classroom learning about basic marine mammal identification, anatomy, physiology and behaviour. You learn and see photos and video of whale ‘first aid’ and they prepare you as much as possible for what to expect at a stranding 

A lot of people find it a very emotional event so preparing people mentally is also important. After the morning session the afternoon is spent out at a beach practising what you have learnt on life-sized models (the models are so good they regularly get people running down the beach to help having mistaken the learning session for a real stranding). You also get trained in the use of pontoons to help refloat the whales, which is critical as you need trained people to use them effectively. Once you have completed the training you go on an area-based list for mobile text alerts. Kim is wonderful at always being available for contact if needed and some areas have active groups of volunteers who meet up on a regular basis to catch up and also help with fundraising. There are no tests involved however, it is recommended that you go to training days every couple of years to keep the knowledge fresh and get any updates in technique and understanding of why whales and dolphins strand.

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What are whales like up close?

Huge! I think one of the most amazing things was that they are such big animals yet they are so gentle and allow us to guide and direct them and seem to have some understanding that we are there to help. They have beautiful eyes. One of my favourite moments was during the 2011 stranding when one whale would roll over and open her eyes as we talked to her. Their skin is extremely delicate. There are lots of descriptions of what whales and dolphins feel like “wet rubber”. That goes some way to describing them but there is also silkiness to their skin, especially where it wrinkles as they move their heads. They have a huge range of sounds they make from clicks and whistles to what a friend described as ‘an R2D2 noise’. You had to take great care not to go near their tails especially when the tide was coming in as they would get excited and start lifting their tails up and down yet once they were able to swim again they were incredibly gentle if you happened to bump up against their tails they would just move them away. One of the things that really surprised me was the smell. They had a very distinctive smell, which clung to your skin. It is hard to describe it but it is a smell I will never forget. 

 

Have you always been an ocean person or a whale admirer?

I remember growing up and reading about Opo the friendly dolphin and wishing that she was still around so I could visit her. When Moko arrived it was like a dream come true. Seeing strandings on TV had always been absolutely devastating and something I wished I could help out with but until I started chatting to Kim I didn’t realise there was an organisation in New Zealand doing exactly that! It is something that a lot of people seem to wish they could help with and I love that Project Jonah trains people no matter what they do. You do not have to be a whale expert you just have to have a passion for them and a willingness to get out there and actually do something about helping them!

 

How could we all do more to help Project Jonah?

There is always a two-fold need for a charity like Project Jonah: one is for the public to know the organisation exists and the other is financial support. 

The more people that are aware of Project Jonah and either sign up to a training day or simply just know they can call them when they find a stranded animal is important. If we don’t know they are stranded then we cannot help them! They have also developed a 'World of Whales’ educational resource kit, which is free for teachers to access. 

Teaching our children to respect the ocean and the animals within it is critical for marine mammal survival. We need a generation of young people who genuinely care about the oceans or we are going to continue to destroy them. Our Maui dolphins for example are the most endangered species of dolphin in the world with approximately 55 left. It is a real disgrace in a country, which has prided itself in its ‘clean, green’ image.

The other key concern is funding. Responding to a stranding is expensive as is the maintenance of critical life-saving equipment. Project Jonah and DOC have set up whale rescue trailers in some of the worst stranding ‘hot spots’ but we are always in need of more. 

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Tell us about the feeling of helping at your first stranding.

It is so hard to describe the mix of emotions you experience at a stranding; each stranding is unique and different. The first stranding I attended was in 2011 in Golden Bay and was amazing as I got to experience the beauty of watching the pod which had split into three groups reunite. The water was just full of clicks and whistles and the whales were rubbing up against each other and swimming around on their sides and upside down having a big stretch after a night on the beach. The news got better as we heard that they had made it across the other side of the bay and sounded like they were swimming strongly. All the same, eight of us were asked to watch four different beaches until dark just in case they returned. The pod did return to the beach up from the one we were sitting at. Another volunteer, Chantal, and I jumped into our wetsuits and raced down to help whilst the people that spotted them had to go back to their car to change. Elation at them having done so well that morning and afternoon turned to despair as after an approximately 2km walk/run we reached the water’s edge and it became clear that at least a few of the pod were in trouble and had come aground. 

At that point I knew the horror of watching a pod coming into the beach and the thought of ‘what in the world can just two people do to stop them’? Almost immediately we made the decision that we should head out and at the very least try the impossible and see if the two of us could do anything to stop them while we waited for the other medics to arrive and help. We waded out and found one of the biggest whales stuck, surrounded by water but with his belly on the sand. I wrapped my arm about his dorsal fin while Chantal directed his head and with a lot of pushing we managed to get him moving again. We continued out to where more whales were struggling and I will never forget standing beside three whales as the rest of the pod swam past and around us. 

They are such enormous animals yet are so gentle and seem so careful around us. Suddenly the chaos and desperation ceased as we realised that the entire pod was moving again and heading in the right direction. At that point I realised I had cramp in both calf muscles and was exhausted from the effort of moving several 2+ tonnes whales back into deeper water. We turned around and saw that the other medics had finally made it the 2km down to the water’s edge just to see the pod heading back to sea. As we got about halfway back out of the water elation returned as everyone cheered and hugged in joy that again the pod had been saved. 

Kim had walked out from another beach and I will never forget the look on her face as she got to the water’s edge and asked where all the whales had gone. Such joy that we had managed to get them back off the beach. Her passion for all things marine related is contagious and her genuine care for the medics is a delight to see. 

It was a very nervous night and morning as we fully expected them to strand again but to our delight, come morning there were no more whales on the beach. We spotted them from a lookout point and were lucky enough to track them for the day with a telescope and watch as they hunted and got their bearings. That night they were seen for the last time at the base of the Spit before they headed back into open water.