Saturday 17 October 2020, Colville
It all started about half past seven in the morning on Saturday. A text from Project Jonah informing me that 25 whales had stranded in Colville and asking if I could attend woke me up. It all went really fast. My flatmate packed me a lunch bag with bananas (I remembered you don’t need to touch what you eat), nuts, a protein shake, peanut butter toast, heaps of water and hand sanitiser while I was trying to gather my gear still half awake. “Warm clothes and wetsuit” were the words that kept circling in my head. Now that I think about it, I probably grabbed too much gear but hey, I had never done this before and some place in the northern Coromandel are quite remote. I am glad I remembered to back a bucket to bring my wetsuit home. I am not quite sure when but at some point between replying YES to project Jonah and packing I managed to check my DOC phone. I only just started working a few hours with them when they need me but they still consider me as part of the team. That is when I found out that some of them were on their way up there from Whitianga. I let them know that I would be joining them and decided to join them instead. I was prepared to be autonomous (camping gear and extra meals packed in the car) and happy to sit and watch if that is what the people in charge wanted. I wanted to help my team. I was out the door by 8:15am.
Arrival on site
I arrived at Colville after driving through Coromandel town. I was surprised to see that no one seemed to be rushing up north. I am not quite sure what I expected. It was the same when I reached Colville. I drove until I could see the sea but no sign of whales. I thought it must have been at another location and turned around to go back to the only café to ask if they knew anything. On my way back, I saw the fire truck arrive in front of the station and just decided to ask them where the whales were. They were not even 2 minutes away from where we were. I just had to keep driving on the road. Everything was so calm in the small community. I kept driving and then I saw it. Small black dots in the water; people pushing whales towards the deeper part of the bay. I put thermals/polyprops on, my wetsuit on top of them, hat, sunglasses and my Project Jonah high vis vest. I also had my card with tips for whale rescues around my neck. I walked along the road/beach towards the DOC utes and a person in a high vis vest. I recognised one of my DOC colleagues but he was on the phone, probably organising logistics. Next to him on the beach was a local with a young child in his arms. I stopped talked to him.
Action time begins
He was able to give me an idea of what was going on; they were trying to refloat as many whales as they could before the tide was gone out too far. He asked me if I knew what he should tell people when they arrived on the beach and that is when I gave him my card with tips on how to look after stranded whales.
I walked past maybe 10 whales that were still in the water but definitely too shallow to be moved in any way to deeper water. I saw another young guy in a Project Jonah vest. I handed sheets as I walked past people starting to look after the whales. Most people were wearing wetsuits or some sort of warm clothes. There were so many whales. We barely had one person per stranded whale. I gave them some tips, how to stay safe if the whale rolled on you by kneeling against it, watching out for the tail making sure people were not creating air pockets around the dorsal fin with the sheets I was handing out. And where did all these sheets come from? I wonder now that I write this. There were a lot of old kids/young teenagers, they stuck together most of the time or their parents were never far. They were also excellent at following instructions and speaking up about their feelings.
The other people chasing/moving the whales to deeper water seemed to always be moving further away and I wondered if I would ever catch up with them.
I kept walking towards the open ocean. I saw a woman walking towards me and thought that she was meeting me half way to get the sheets I was carrying. I was wrong she was walking back towards the shore to get to her inhaler. She was having an asthma attack. She stopped and asked me if I could get it for her. Just at that moment a kid that knew her joined us and said he would go and get it out of her car and bring it back to her. I stayed with her. Even if we were all there to help the whales, we had to look after each other first. We were both in knee deep water at that point but the tide was going out quickly.
Stuck half way through
I reached the closest group with a whale. I think at that point there was only one woman with the whale. We introduced ourselves as we tried to encourage the whale to move with the others that were being refloated out at sea. It was hard to convince the whale to swim or move it without holding on to the fins. I wished I could remember the name of that young woman, all I can remember if that she did a Project Jonah course a long time ago. She obviously still remembered the essentials. I do remember her smile and her voice. A couple joined us and again be tried to move the whale but it wasn’t even trying to swim. The tide was going out fast. Two older kids joined us. The tide was going out to fast and our whale was already stranded. I my head I called it “the whale stranded half way through”. I remembered that getting attached to them could be challenging if they died or when they swam away. It had to be “just a whale” for now. It was the only one that far up, a few hundred meters away from the other ones and unable to reach the ones that were swimming in the shallows. I remember seeing group of people walking past half carrying a whale with towels. They must have managed to refloat it with the pod. We held our whale in position to make sure it didin’t roll on its side like I heard someone say as I walked past the first whales in the morning. We had sheets and two buckets and a team of people ready to look after the whale. I remember kneeling against the whale like we did on the course. The sensations were so similar! The main difference was that this one was breathing and moving on its own. It also called and the “smiling woman” would reply to her and reassure her with words. The whale started rolling on me and I felt my legs sink deeper in the sand. Our whale was on the sand now. The two younger girls were worried about the whale. I told them everything I knew and remembered; use the spare towels to make sand bags, don’t pour water in the blowhole, be careful that the sheet on the dorsal fin doesn’t create a bubble of hot air, watch out for the tail and teeth, keep it cool. I told them to imagine that the whale was feeling the same as a human laying in the sun in a thick wetsuit in a puddle of water. We had to keep the whale wet and drain the water around it. At that point I was starting to feel the cold breeze and my legs where feeling numb. I asked if someone could take over and a young woman in a wetsuit stepped in. we must have been 7 people around the whale at that time; a couple in their late 40ies, two young girls, most likely sister, the smiling woman and the young woman in the wetsuit. We were all quite calm. I told them that now we had to be ready to wait until the tide came in at the end of the afternoon/early evening. It told them that I was cold. We agreed that they would look after the whale and I walked back to my car to put a polar fleece jacket and a raincoat on. I drunk some water and got stuck back into it. I was nice and warm, ready to spend the day in my wet but warm clothes.
Stop and think
Before I reached my car to add some layers on I got stopped by my colleague, the DOC Marine Ranger in charge. He asked how I was doing and what I knew. He asked me to stick around because he was about to brief everyone. And so, he did. He called everyone around that big yellow thing they use to fill the buckets and waited until everyone was there. He introduced himself and explained to everyone in two minutes how to look after their whale and make them as comfortable as possible. It didn’t take long, it was clear and he used words that everyone could understand. Once he finished everyone went back to their whale with clear instructions. These 2 minutes saved a lot of time and put everyone on the same page and avoided misunderstandings. I went back to my car, added some layers and returned to “my” whale.
We need more people with wetsuits.
I got back to the whale to give them the Marine Ranger’s instructions but someone had already done it. They now had an extra member in their team. It started to feel like a huge team working together, looking after each other. That feeling only grew during the day.
At that point a young girl said that they needed more people with wetsuits to help look after the whales that were milling in shallow water. I volunteered and started to walk out to the whales. It was hard to judge the distance. I looked at the map when I got back home and I must have walked a kilometre in thigh deep water. My legs were burning when I reached the people and I was no longer cold. They were forming a semi-circle, creating a human barrier to stop the whales form reaching the shallow waters. The tide was still going out and we had to keep them in deeper water.
Shepherds of the sea
This was one of my favourite parts of the day. An experience I would never forget. Rob was in charge. I found out later that he had a lot of experience compared to all of us. We also had a member of the DOC team with us in the water. We got clear instructions; “push the whales back, don’t go any deeper than your hips, don’t stand in the middle of the pod.” It was very similar to rolling the plastic whale during the course except that these ones could swim and would come towards you and try to sneak past you. Some of them were swimming on their backs, they seemed to still be trying to find their bearings. I didn’t notice at the time but I compared to their behaviour that I saw later during the day. I felt so lucky to be out in the calm ocean, under the warm sun, a slight breeze blowing and a bunch of strangers working together. And be able to witness the beauty of the whales. A lot of people mentioned that they would never forget how they talked. I loved to hear them and just look at them interact with each other, waiting for the other ones on the beach. At some point they all turned towards us and tried to sneak through our defence. It reminded me of a game we used to play at school but with whales! One got through but we managed to bring it back to the pod. At that point we had two people that came with 3 kayaks and lent them to us. It was quite handy to store jackets, water bottles, sheets etc. it is much easier to paddle in shallow waters than to walk a kilometre in the water. I remember we got asked to be quiet for a few minutes because a member of the local iwi was going to perform a karakia. He stayed on the dry sand not too far from us but it was magical. His prayer sounded magical. I wanted to believe that the whales could understand what he was saying. I hoped he was telling them not to worry, that we were looking after their loved ones and that they would all be reunited soon.
It was tricky to stop the whales and redirect them. Sometimes they were swimming on top of each other. I tripped several times over tails I couldn’t see in the murky water. It seemed we reached an understanding with the whales. They seemed to change direction gently every time they saw our hands in the water. I was surprised how gentle they were with us. They never seemed scared or aggressive to me. More inquisitive, curious, cheeky, they stayed together. The thing that stuck with me is that they seemed very relaxed, chatty and patient considering that the rest of the pod was on the beach and that humans were in between. They seemed so comfortable with each other. The people were mostly quiet, relaxed and would sometime start a casual conversation about the weather or the ocean. It felt meditative, being in the moment. I wouldn’t have swapped my place for anything else in the world.
Looking after each other
I don’t know how long I stood in the water for. Time didn’t seem to exist now that I wasn’t cold. The water was also warming up now that the tide was out. A group of people and another DOC staff brought us food, water, chocolate, sunscreen. We were well looked after. The woman handing out sunscreen was so kind she even spread the cream on my face because my hands were holding chocolate and a water bottle. They also said that more people were coming to help us if we needed to take a break. Rob, our improvised team leader was good at asking if we needed a break, if we were cold. He remembered who had been there for a long time. He was good at looking after us. Everyone was good at looking after each other. There was no shame in taking a break and people were reasonable about taking breaks and saying how they felt. There seemed to be an understanding that we would look after each other to make sure the whales got the best help by first looking after ourselves. I don’t think that any volunteer pushed their limits that day.
Time for a break
Around 3pm Rob told us that we just had to keep doing what we were doing and that now was a good time to take a break if we had been in the water for a long time because nothing was going to happen until 4pm. He explained that then we would need people because we would start bringing the pod closer to the stranded whales. I thought it was time for me to take a break. I started walking back when I bumped into two young teenagers joining the ranks. They asked me if I could create a stingray track in the water for them. They didn’t want to step on one by mistake. I walked back to the semi-circle with the two boys behind me and left them in capable hands.
The walk back was long. That is when I realised how far the tide had gone. There was much distance between the stranded whales and the pod. I walked pass the stranded whales but didn’t really look at them. I had a job for the day and that wasn’t part of it. My job was to have a break. The local Buddhist temple/retreat had brought some food for the volunteer and there were hot drinks too. Everyone seemed to have a task assigned to their ability; grandparents looking after young kids, people feeding us, people handing buckets, logistics. I even saw some people creating bamboo tripods to create shade above the whale’s head. The rural fire brigade was also looking after people really well. No one seemed to be unreasonable, aggressive or stubborn. I saw people with green vest from animal welfare, a medic from Project Jonah with a blue vest, iwi members. It was a huge team working well together. I lay down for 10 minutes allowing my body to relax. I chatted with a few people and I was off again. Little did I know that I was leaving the beach only to set foot back on it at sunset.
Handling a pod
I walked back to the team that was handling the pod. I am so glad that I left the beach when I did. It saved me walking in thigh deep water for a long distance. I joined the human semi-circle full of familiar faces now. Everyone was in good spirits. The tide was coming in. We used one man as the “anchor”; every time the water reached over his hips we would move back. At the start it was easy because we were containing the pod in a U shape made of humans. I found a spot in one of the branches of the U. Conversations were casual and the mood was good. I heard someone mention that there were four dead whales on the rocks on the other side of the bay but I didn’t really pay attention to that information then. I thought it could be a rumour, old information. It all made sense later.
At some point a whale tried to swim around. It seemed to be pushing its luck with us. It was too deep for us to walk it back to the pod. I laughed and said that maybe we should call it back like a dog. The people next to me encouraged to try just for a laugh. Here I was talking to a whale “come, come on”. I think we were all a bit surprised when the whale turned around and came towards us and joined the pod in slow and lazy movements. I like to think it came back to me but I am very aware that is was probably just a coincidence.
Everyone was keen to help and follow instructions; they just needed to know what to do and confirmation that they were doing the right thing. The human net moved from a U shape to a semi-square, to a human channel in line with the channel dug by the digger. Once the water became too shallow we closed the human channel and created a full and wide human circle with the pod in the middle. The whales looked relaxed and so did the humans.
A boat joined us when I got back to the pod around 4 pm and when the tide started coming in. At that point a few DOC staffed joined our team to make sure that everyone was fed, hydrated and warm. I don’t really remember when the boats joined us. The harbour master was the first one to join us on his jet ski. He would sometimes relay instructions but he mainly used his jet ski to muster the whales or help the human net to chase them in one direction or the other. He was also keeping an eye on people that looked cold and was organising life jackets with small inflatable boats that were coming from the shore in case the tide came in too fast. Everyone that was in the water was well equipped with wetsuits and warm jackets. DOC staff, rob and Project Jonah people were easy to identify with high-vis vests and were mostly well spread amongst volunteers.
Here we go
We were now a full circle of maybe 40-50 people in the water, 2 kayaks gravitating around it, the harbour master and the inflatable boats between the shore and the circle (leaving the beach side clear of any boats). We were getting closer and closer to the whale stranded half way through. We could see people pushing the whale towards us. Suddenly there was a commotion on the beach side of the circle. The whales were trying to get through and one of them did. I tried to jump in front of it from my kayak but I was too slow, or I guess the whale was too fast. The other kayak followed it but it didn’t go far. It had gone straight to the whale being refloated, circling around it and leading it towards the pod as if to say “come this way”. I kayaked ahead and gave the people the heads up that the two whales were coming back. The people in this side of the circle had their backs turned to the beach and were busy holding off the other whales in the pod. I think the appreciated the heads up and they seemed happy to have the escapee back with the pod. When I caught up with the stranded whale being reunited with the pod I recognised the “smiling woman” and what a smile! I told her “your whale made it!” she was so happy and her happiness was contagious. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had spent the day with the whale of if she had taken a break.
Whales in the channel
People were moving the whales one after the other through the channel towards the pod. They looked like a train with wagons. I could see black dorsal fins surrounded by five to maybe seven people in black wetsuits each. It all happened quite fast and at the same time it was a race against the setting sun. We wanted to refloat them before dark. I remember seeing the whale in the pontoon go first through the channel they had dug with that big orange digger. And then I remember seeing it past the pod, towards the open sea.
Time to go
We had done it. All the whales had been brought back to the pod and were swimming together. It was hard to see if they were all swimming well as the sun was coming down. By then it had already disappeared behind the horizon and the clouds in the sky were starting to turn orange. I remember thinking “this is just like a western movie where the cowboy rides towards the setting sun” it was the end of the story. I had no idea if any whales had died, but seeing them swim together was so rewarding that it didn’t really matter to me. Everyone that had a wetsuit joined the human net to stop the whales from coming back to the beach. We got asked to step back because the boats where taking over now. They were directing the whales out of the bay. The light was disappearing in the horizon with the whales. Everyone slowly walked back to the beach, I saw smiles, hugs, tired but happy people. Not many people stuck around. They all went home. All the DOC rangers gathered with the ones coming to take over for the night watch and debriefed.
Wrapping up but it is not over yet
I went back to my car and got changed. The breeze was cold and I was ready for some dry clothes. It wasn’t that cold. We were so lucky with the weather. I helped the rangers pack the pontoon and some of their gear in their cars. The drive back to Whitianga was hard. I am glad I had music in my car. I often considered just sleeping in my car but there was a chance that they wouldn’t need us in the morning so I decided to drive home. I got there around 9 pm and by the time you do a quick wash, have a shower and have dinner I was in bed at 10pm.