For now, the pilot whales that were most recently stranded on a remote beach in Puponga, New Zealand, appear to be safely out at sea. But the local office of the Department of Conservation (DOC) and whale protection organization Project Jonah will continue to monitor the situation closely.
On Jan. 20, 24 pilot whales stranded themselves on a beach at the northwest tip of New Zealand’s South Island. None of the whales survived, according to Project Jonah. Ten of the whales were already dead by the time the DOC arrived and the remaining 14 had to be euthanized because they couldn’t be rescued.
Two weeks later, 70 or more whales, which Debbie Neale, a ranger at the Golden Bay Area DOC, guesses were from the same pod, washed up again. While a few died, the majority made it back to sea on the overnight high tide.
The following day, however, Project Jonah reported that 41 whales had become restranded and immediately put out an urgent alert for volunteers to help refloat the mammals.
Claire Webster and Kyle Mulinder are two volunteers who answered the call.
Claire Webster, an environmental educator in Golden Bay, answered the call both times to help the whales, as she’s done many times before.
“At one stage I was helping look after a really big pregnant female and every time I stopped touching her and talking she would get upset—I was with her about two hours before she calmed down. If I got up she would shake and call out and her breathing rate would shoot up.
“Their breath smells very alive—not horrible but kind of a mix of earthy and fishy. They have lovely dark kind eyes that watch you at times; at other times they keep them closed.
“People sang to them—one guy played his flute. I saw people chanting, while others prayed.”
“The whales have beautiful voices—out their blowholes—when they are in the water and you put your head under, everyone is talking, it’s loud! When they are stranded, its pretty sad, sounding like they are scared and in pain. The babies cry lots—it always rips my heart out. We try to move them so they are real close to a big whale—for comfort.”
“When the tide is out, its digging around them to prop them up, get[ting] water around them, and make them as comfortable as possible, for example dig out under their flippers so they can relax. Imagine lying face down with your arms stuck back up behind you instead of hanging down a bit. They need to be kept damp and cool. Cool is the hard bit. Also lots of reassuring was needed by most. Some whales don’t like to be touched at all.
“When the water is coming in you have to get really wet helping them keep their blowholes above the water line. If they are stuck too close to each other and can’t roll upright they drown—with much fighting for their lives—terrible to witness as we can do so little to help as they are so big, yet fragile!
“Others are stuck on their sides. We can right them, but they need to be held up until they get their balance back. Gentle rocking can help once they are afloat. The babies can swim first in the shallower water so they hone around like little cow-sized missiles checking out everyone—very cute.
“Once they all get afloat they have a big talk and those who are the worst off are held up by others—very moving to see. Then we make a people wall to try and slowly push them into one group and then out to deeper water. As the tide is huge here, once we finish its about a 1 km [0.6 miles] walk back through the water to shore.”
For Kyle Mulinder, a sea kayak guide and owner of free video guide Barekiwi.com, it was his first time on a whale rescue.
“When we first started walking out … it was sunrise and 6:30 a.m. They were about a 900 meters out [about 0.5 miles] on an endless beach. As we walked toward them we were all excited. Once we got close, we heard the first blowhole and saw one tail flap, then reality kicked us, kicked me in the face. It felt like a bus crash with kids screaming everywhere. I could hear them communicating to each other. There was DOC staff there that told us what to do. I was given a few whales and set to work.
“I had to lay blankets on them, not over the dorsal fin or blowhole—this protects them from the sun and helps keep them wet. I kept putting buckets of water on them as well, keeping water out of the blowhole.”
“At first they would try and move when I got close, but then I felt that they knew I was trying to help and started relaxing.
“The touch was very hard and not what I expected. It was like a soft plastic. Some appeared to be crying with tears coming down their eyes. And they all had wounds, from bashing around. It was very heartbreaking—but very powerful.
Volunteers help pilot whales stranded on the beach, a long way from the sea near Puponga, New Zealand, on Feb. 4, 2011.(Courtesy of Kyle Mulinder)
“There was a mum and baby side by side. It took me a little while to go over to them as I found that really hard emotionally. The baby would not stop thrashing around. I had my two whales [that] I was looking after and I felt a bit of a bond with them, they would open their eyes when I talked to them and sometimes they would make noise with every bucket of water, like a ‘thank you’ or like when you scratch someone’s back and they say ‘left, left, oh just there.'”
“When the tide started to come in, all the people who had been there with me from the beginning started to talk to each other and we started to get excited, I think the whales could feel this energy and did too.
“The blankets were removed and people not in wetsuits were asked to leave. As the tide started to move around us we needed to push some of the whales upright. Some had landed on their sides and they can drown if the tide covers their blowholes.
“We helped our whales as the tide grew higher and higher until they were floating. But some of them could not stay upright, as they had lost their balance so you had to hold them until they found it, gently rocking them.
“We moved them all together still holding onto them, the water being only waist deep, not deep enough for them to swim fully yet.
“Then magic happened when we were all together, all us volunteers, the DOC staff, and Project Jonah people, we were all together with our whales and smiling and excited to see our whales floating. The energy was high. Then 10 other whales showed up who had been stranded down further and were rescued by another crew 30 minutes earlier. They came straight for us. Then our whales got excited.
“The call was made and we all stood back. They swam to each other and you would have to be heartless and a man of steel not to be chocked by the sight of this. All of us stood still, no one spoke, maybe 40 people. It was a very intense feeling. Then people started yahooing. If you put your head under the water you could hear all the whales yahooing under there as well.”