At first light on Sunday 5th June, two whales were found stranded on a beach near New Brighton, a coastal suburb of Christchurch. Unfortunately one of the whales had already died, but a local Project Jonah medic who happened upon the scene quickly organised those who found the surviving whale – sending some for sheets and buckets, and others helping to move the whale upright. This kicked off an enormous community response, with over 1000 people taking part throughout the day, and at 2.40pm ‘Sandy the whale’ was refloated and seen swimming to deeper water.
Katie was the first Project Jonah person on the scene. She lives by the sea and is always there at sunrise, come rain or shine. When the text came in from a friend saying there was a whale on the beach by the surf-club, she was there in moments.
Unfortunately this whale was dead but, following her training, Katie looked along the beach for other whales and saw two people waving. Just then some fishermen came down the beach in a Ute and she hitched a lift to the next whale. This one was alive.
A chap called Colin said he had phoned the Department of Conservation (DOC) and he had cleared the sand away from around the blowhole. There was another beach-walker there too, a woman, who was clearing sand from around the tail! While there is no need to do this for a stranded whale, it shows how much people want to help.
The whale was resting on her right side, her delicate pectoral fin potentially being crushed under her own weight. They know they have to turn her.
People were beginning to gather, and soon enough they had shovels, buckets and sheets, but no one else on scene was trained for this. Katie took charge and set some people to pouring water on the whale to keep it cool and others to digging out on the landward side so they could eventually roll her. She drew a circle around the tail in the sand so people would stay away from it (the tail is very powerful and can knock a person off their feet if caught by one) and they waited, hoping for more trained people to arrive.
Not long after putting these people to work, Courtney and Charlotte, two more trained Project Jonah volunteers came running down the beach, swiftly followed by two Christchurch City Council Rangers. With five knowledgeable people plus the locals, they decided to roll the whale upright.
While someone watched the pectoral fin, they knelt down and, siding along the whale, they gently push her upright and put sand-filled pillow cases along her side to keep her upright. The sheets and towels over her back were adjusted to make sure most of her body stayed wet throughout the day.
There were a few kids helping out, so Katie asked them to be buddy to the whale, to talk to her, to reassure the whale and themselves, and to monitor how regularly she was breathing.
Katie looked up to find they had collected quite a large crowd, maybe 50 or so. “What time is high tide?” someone asked. Not until 2.30pm – still hours away.
More people, medics and locals alike, turn up and join the effort. Some people brought coffee, hot food, soup, and water for all those helping. These were greatly appreciated as, while it was a bright sunny day, it was mid-winter and a southerly wind was blowing. News of the Waimari whale was spreading on local social media groups and the New Brighton community pulled together to organise huge support for those on the beach and for the aptly named 'Sandy the whale'.
Dozens of buckets were now being passed along from the water to the whale in a human chain – amazingly, over 1,000 people turned up to help out through the day.
At 1pm, Buzz, the leader of the operation, gathered the Project Jonah medics (now almost 20 of them) to brief them about the refloat. This involved putting Sandy on the specifically designed pontoons to float her past the shallow waters into the sea.
At this time, a spotter plane was launched to look out for the rest of Sandy’s pod and a digger arrived, which was used to dig a channel from the whale to the sea to refloat her earlier than high tide.
As the water got closer, the medics looking after Sandy rocked her gently from side to side to get her used to the motion of the sea again.
The signal was given to inflate the pontoons as the lifeguards pushed their boat into the water, getting ready to tow the whale and pontoons as soon as the water was deep enough. As a few inches of water reached Sandy, she was turned towards the sea and pulled into the waves.
A big cheer went up from the crowd and the rescuers moved forward and were soon waist deep in the sea helping the pontoon and its cargo towards deeper water. Buzz then shouted “let go” and the two lifeguards in the boat were now in control of Sandy.
After a full day of taking care of her, talking to her and reassuring her, there’s nothing to do for those who helped her but to hope she was strong enough to swim free, but they quickly lost sight of her.
They were hopeful, as Sandy hadn’t turned back towards the beach. Then the hundreds of people cheer again as they see her swimming out to deeper water. Thanks to the massive effort from the New Brighton community, Sandy is successfully refloated at 2.40pm.
It's this community spirit that often goes unheralded, but is the core of a successful refloat for the team at Project Jonah. Simply put, without people who care about the environment around them, stories like this would become tragedies rather than the collective success that it was.
Scientists were contacted, both here and overseas, and crucial data was recorded during the event. These scientists helped to confirm that Sandy was part of a pod of whales called false killer whales (while related to pilot whales, they demonstrate many different behaviours).
“I have never been so proud to have chosen Brighton as my home as the people here are truly fantastic. And I will never forget the look in one little girl’s eyes as I left the group of medics and she said to me‘Thank you so much for saving the whale’…” Charlotte.
“It was an experience I’ll never forget.” Katie.
Waimari Beach, Christchurch, NZ.
False Killer Whale, Sandy.
Successfully refloated at 2.40pm
Project Jonah are running marine mammal medic training courses throughout Spring and summer all around NZ, check em out and book your place on a training here.