On Saturday night I got the first text asking Christchurch Marine Mammal Medics to be on standby following a spotting of whales off Port Levy that afternoon. I thought to myself, ‘what are the odds that they actually strand?’ but then again I have been waiting for this moment -be able to attend a stranding- for the past 5 years. Quick grab bag check: snacks, thermos, spare warm clothes, buckets and sheets, all good. I threw my medic’s vest and ID card in my wetsuit gear box -just in case- and went to bed secretly wishing (and I know it sounds horrible) that I would get a call the next day…
Sunday morning, 8am.
As I get ready to leave home, my phone beeps again. ‘Stranding alert. A whale has stranded north of New Brighton, Chch. We do not know where rest of pod is. Please reply YES if you are able to attend.’ What?! That’s just down the road. I can not not go. Quick turn around. I open the boot of my car and throw (literally!) everything in. Adrenalin is pumping as I turn off on the street. It has been a freezing night though and I almost skid on the wet road.
When I arrive at the beach, the first thing I see down by the surf club is a dead whale. No one around, just this big black lifeless body. Sadness doesn’t have time to settle as I spot people rushing towards the water in the distance and I realise there is at least one live whale up there. I grab a couple that emerged from the dunes for their morning walk, quickly explain the situation and ask them to remain by the dead whale until the Department of Conservation (DOC) and further help arrive.
I can’t help but run towards the little crowd and when I finally see the whale, it hits me. Here it is: a live stranded whale and we are here to help. I trained as a medic with Project Jonah back in 2011 and since missed on a couple of mass Golden Bay strandings. I am not going to lie, at this stage I am as excited as a toddler in front of his first Christmas Tree! Another medic, Courtney greets me and briefs me on what has been done so far. The whale is resting on her right side, her pectoral fin potentially being crushed under her own weight. We have to turn her.
We grab the rest of the Project Jonah crew already here and quickly review the procedure. DOC and the rangers are not here yet but we don’t want to wait as we don’t know how long before they arrive. Siding along the whale, we ‘gently’ -if there is such a thing as being gentle when you are trying to move a 1000kgs+ whale! - push her upright and put our sand-filled pillow cases under her flanks to keep her up. We adjust the sheets and towels over her back to make sure most of her body will keep wet through the day. ‘What time is the tide?’ Somebody asks. I realise almost horrified that it is not until 16.30 this afternoon. It is going to be a long day…
DOC and the Council Park rangers arrive shortly after and the waiting game begins. More people, medics and locals alike, turn up and join the effort. Some people have brought coffee, hot food and water. Dozens of buckets are now being passed along from the water to the whale. What a fantastic little community we live in. I found out later that evening that the news of the Waimari whale was massively spread on local social media groups and people enquiring about what help was needed through the day. Sandy, aptly named, and everyone at the scene are very well looked after!
I rotate between bucket filling, bringing food and water to the human chain - and surprisingly many people refuse, too focused on the task at hand!- talking to the watchers and of course tending to Sandy. We constantly pour water over her and dig out her pectoral fins. We also monitor her breathing to make sure she is still responsive and does not get too stressed. A few of the medics here have been to previous strandings but for most of us it is our first one. I am very impressed by how ‘natural’ things seem to be. We all know what we are doing. No one panics and we look after one another. Thinking about it now, without the training I had with Project Jonah, I would have felt completely useless.
At 1pm, Buzz, the leader of our operation gathers the medics that will put Sandy on the specifically designed pontoons and attempt the refloat. He also tells us that Sandy is in fact a false killer whale and not a pilot whale as we previously thought. They are very similar in looks and given the circumstances I am sure we will be forgiven! We quickly refresh our knowledge of the pontoons and head back to Sandy. The digger that will help create a channel from her to the sea is on the way and we need to move the crowd! Hundreds of people are watching now, from the top of the dunes right down to the water. ‘Are you going to save the whale’ a little girl asks? Well, we are certainly going to try and given the amount of spectators I don’t think we can fail…
The water is getting much closer now. We start rocking Sandy gently from side to side to get her used to motion again. Just before 2pm, we put her on the mat and attach the pontoons. Way harder on a real dolphin (false killer whales, like orcas are indeed members of the dolphins family) than on the inflatable one we had at training. Sandy starts moving her tail a bit more. I wonder if she knows we are trying to help. She has been so calm the whole time… I can’t imagine how scary it must be for her. Alone, away from her pod, surrounded by a crowd of weird looking creatures and out of her natural element. She kept her eyes closed most of the day, her breathing pretty steady. Maybe she does know…
The waves come higher and higher. We get the signal to inflate the pontoons as the lifeguards push their inflatable boat into the water, getting ready to tow our whale-raft as soon as it is deep enough. The wee sand dam is broken and the water finally reaches us enough to start our move. We turn Sandy towards the horizon and pull her to the waves. ‘You’re almost there girl, hang in there’. There is a big cheer from the crowd as we move forward… We pull harder with our little hands and soon we are waist deep into the sea. A little longer and Buzz commands us to let it go. It is now up to the two lifeguards to set Sandy free. It is the hardest part, to let go. We have been with Sandy all day, talking to her, reassuring her (and ourselves) and we want to make sure that she is going to be ok.
As we stand back in the waves, the boat is already past the breakers and one of the lifeguards has jumped in to deflate the pontoon. We are too far away to really see what is going on. After what seems a long time, we see the man (definitely today’s hero!) jump back on the boat. She is free! We know we can’t rejoice too fast in case of a re-strand but still cheer happily! It is a victory so far! A couple of surfers join us in the water and congratulate us for our effort. The coastguards standby in the distance to make sure Sandy does not turn back to the beach. I spot a final puff of vapour as the dolphin breathes near the boat one last time and only when they turn around -minutes later- can I finally go back to the sand.
The hot cup of soup -courtesy of a local Brighton legend- is most welcome. As the crowd starts to disperse, a few people come to congratulate the refloat crew and enquire about the training. Future medics hopefully. I am positively surprised at the amount of kids/teenagers asking about ‘how old you need to be to save the whales?’. Computers have not completely taken over our future generations yet! I guess that even though strandings are quite common in NZ they remain pretty rare on a popular beach of one of the biggest cities and making events like this one more of a reality.
As I head back towards my car, more people stop me. ‘What happened to the whale?’ ‘Did it swim back out?’ I am completely soaked from head to toes, pretty sore (nothing like the next day though!) and exhausted but I have got a big smile on my face. ‘Yes, we refloated her about an hour ago. The coastguards waited until she was out of sight and we will patrol the beaches for the next couple of days.’ We did it! When I sit back in my car, it strikes me. We did save a life today, and we did it together. Just a bunch of ordinary people working hard as a team to achieve something extraordinary.
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 this little girl’s eyes as I left the group of medics. ‘Thank you so much for saving the whale’…
Waimari Beach, Christchurch, NZ.
False Killer Whale, Sandy.
Successfully refloated @ 2.40pm