Volunteers to the rescue

Project Jonah volunteer helps whale.jpg

14 February 2011
Volunteers, including more than 100 Project Jonah marine mammal medics, were key to 67 out of 84 whales surviving a series of mass strandings over the weekend in Golden Bay. 
The stranded whales were first discovered by a member of the public at about 1pm on Friday 4th February near Farewell Spit. Sadly 9 whales died that afternoon as DOC staff and volunteers battled to care for the whales until dark.  As night fell, volunteers were pulled back and off the beach.

"It was heart-wrenching to leave the whales but it simply wasn't safe for us to care for them at night with a rising tide", reports Project Jonah volunteer Rachel Toole.

DOC staff later reported hearing the whales moving about and calling to each other on the midnight high tide.  Speculation that the whales had 'self-floated' was confirmed at first light the next morning when the surviving whales were no where to be seen.

Drizzle and low cloud prevented a spotter plane from being sent up and hope turned to despair when a member of the public reported a large pod of pilot whales milling close to shore off the settlement of Pakawau, several kilometres south of Puponga. A desperate scramble by DOC staff, Project Jonah medics and other volunteers paid off as the whales were prevented from re-stranding. Quick action continued to avert a number of near-miss strandings throughout the day along the coast.

The pod, which had split into two groups, were followed by boats, which attempted to move the whales into deeper water. By mid-afternoon, however, the first group of 40-plus whales stranded about 2-3 kilometres along Farewell Spit. DOC  transported volunteers by 4WD along the Spit to care for these whales but sadly the second group of 25 whales stranded at Taupata Point later in the day. Fortunately, these whales were re-floated before nightfall and herded out.

Early on Sunday morning, the whales were discovered again high and dry at three separate sites – just south of Puponga, Triangle Flat and about 5 kilometres along the Spit.  Volunteers were split between the three sites and due to the different locations and varying tidal heights, a staggered re-float ensued. 

19 whales were re-floated at Puponga first.  Once re-flotated these whales swam north towards the 25 whales awaiting release at Triangle Flat. A DOC boat followed, tasked with keeping them on track.  

'"It was awesome to see the two groups re-unite", said Mark Rigby, Project Jonah volunteer. "The noise was indescribable - lots of excited squeaks and clicks as they greeted each other and re-connected by touching and stroking one another."

Meanwhile the third pod of whales were eventually re-floated and after some gentle coaxing were directed towards deeper water. 

Eventually all three groups of whales re-united and boats followed the pod off-shore until deteriorating sea conditions meant they were pulled back.

Project Jonah volunteers set up watch along the coast in case of a re-strand. At 7pm Lisa Clarke, spotted the whales heading back in. DOC were alerted and a small of team of PJ medics immediately despatched to head them off. Lydia Uddstrom and Chantel Vanderlinden got to the whales first to discover 7 had re-grounded. Mustering almost super-human strength they managed to re-launch the whales in record time and send the rest of the pod on their way!

Kimberly Muncaster, CEO of Project Jonah, said, "We are so proud of all of our volunteers, but if it wasn't for Lisa's vigilant watch at the end and the lightening speed of Lydia and Chantel, this story may not have had such a happy ending.  Lisa travelled from Christchurch, Lydia from Wellington and Chantel from Whakatane. Many of our volunteers came from far and wide.  UtIt ItISSSs  SSIt goes to show that saving whales is a team effort and that most Kiwis are prepared, quite literally, to go that extra mile to help".

The last reported sighting of the whales was 250 metres offshore at the base of Farewell Spit on Monday evening. One week on, there have been no new sightings. A positive sign that the whales have made it safely back out to sea.

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