Saving whales

On 19 January 2014 a team of dedicated volunteers and Department of Conservation rangers teamed together to save a pod of stranded whales. This is the story of that day as shared with us by Daren Grover of Project Jonah.

Hope, concern and camaraderie. These are the three words that for me, sum up the events of January in Golden Bay. The final result of two weeks of work was 46 individual whales successfully refloated and swimming out of Cook Strait. I’d like to share with you one day in particular that gives a perfect example of the complications, the courage and the teamwork required in responding to a stranding.

On that day the Project Jonah team woke pre-sunrise and drove the 10kms to Triangle Flat. Here we met Department of Conservation (DoC) rangers and checked the beach for any sign of the whales which we had refloated the previous day.

13 PEOPLE, 62 WHALES TO RESCUE

Heartbreakingly, right by the entrance to the beach, we found 14 dead whales. A further 5 kilometres along the Spit were 71 whales spread along the high tide line over a distance of 1.5km, of which 8 were dead. My first job was to report back to our Volunteer Coordinator Louisa, who worked tirelessly coordinating trained volunteers to attend the stranding and liaising with the press and media. It’s this ‘behind the scenes’ part of the operation that often can go unnoticed but makes such a huge difference to a stranding response. After doing this, the team got our gear together and 13 of us headed out on the first bus to the stranded whales. We got off the bus when we came across the first whale, while DoC staff headed to the far end of the stranded pod, as there was an injured whale in distress.

BUCKET, SHOVEL AND MUSCLE

Each volunteer was given a shovel, a bucket and about 8 whales each to keep cool. As volunteers continued to arrive throughout the morning, we were able to share the workload and reduce the number of whales that each volunteer was responsible for. I was humbled by the volunteer response we had. Along with the local community, local Project Jonah Medics were joined by Medics who had come from as far as Christchurch and Wellington. We reached the point where each whale had been delegated someone to look after it, but many of the whales were still not upright. We needed a team of strong people to start uprighting the whales. Luckily, 5 minutes later the next bus arrived and out stepped 8 big guys. Perfect! We briefed them and they started working their way through the pod. This made a real difference quite quickly.

As the morning progressed the tide started to come in, with high tide expected just after midday. Farewell Spit has a huge tidal range (up to 6kms in places) and within minutes the sea can travel a few hundred metres. The whales had stranded at the high tide line and it was key to get them buoyant before the tide turned. Once they were free swimming we could guide them into deeper water so that the outgoing tide would draw them off the beach. 

A human chain was formed to walk out and stand between the pod and the beach. As the whales socialised together our efforts were focussed on slowly shepherding them into deeper water. There were also three DoC controlled boats, which manoeuvred themselves between the beach and the pod and continued to monitor the whales closely. As volunteers reached their maximum depths in the water they headed back to the beach and back to Triangle Flat.

The senior Project Jonah Medics and I spent some time collecting and sorting our equipment. When we returned to Triangle Flat many of the volunteers who had worked so hard throughout the morning had left. Among those that stayed there was an air of cautious optimism. At 3pm, it was reported the pod was in deeper water and slowly heading in the direction of Triangle Flat, away from danger.

BUT IT WAS NOT OVER YET...

At 5pm, we were just beginning to relax and we could now see the pod in the distance. Normally when you see a pod of pilot whales from the shore it looks like a group of black dots appearing and reappearing at regular intervals. However, we also saw white dots. This can be an indication of splashing as the whales struggle to swim in shallow water. We radioed the boat who confirmed that some of the whales were indeed struggling and in very shallow water! We got back into our wetsuits and ran the ten minutes to where the whales were stranding.

By the time we reached the first whale, the whole pod had stranded! Many of the whales were thrashing, as they had rolled onto their sides with the force of the tide and were struggling to breathe. I looked around to see how many people we had for these 52 whales. I counted 8. And that’s when my heart sank. What can so few people do for so many helpless animals? We split into pairs and quickly started uprighting the whales so that at least they would be able to breathe until more help came. One whale had struck its head on a rock and was bleeding badly, the water around it running red. Unfortunately this animal died in a few short minutes. There was some concern about the blood in the water as there are plenty of stingrays and sharks in Golden Bay, so we kept a watch on those people working nearby. This was possibly the longest hour of my life. As more people joined us, we managed to stabilise all of the whales.

My feelings of despair were replaced by the hope that these whales would soon have another chance to swim freely.

RESCUE COMPLETE

Returning to the beach this time, the overall feelings of hope, concern, sheer exhaustion and camaraderie really shone out. The sheer effort and selflessness displayed by all those who attended has left me feeling humbled and proud. This is an event that will live long in the memory.